5.30am on January 4th marks the precise birthdate of Tenby born artist Augustus John.
My professional life has seen me undertake a fair amount of research into the life of Augustus John, whose reputation ranges from one of promiscuous enfant terrible of the art world, father of over 100 children and devil to women everywhere, through to the description of him by Henry Tonks as “the best draughtsman since Michelangelo.” Whilst his reputation as king of bohemia, ear-ringed and rambunctious and rollicking like a randy Romany down the hallways of polite society cannot be under doubt (many stories including his own have paid testament to this), his contribution and importance to 20th century art should not be overlooked in favour of these more colourful tales. This was the man who not only rubbed shoulders with the likes of Dylan Thomas and WB Yeats and David Lloyd George but also produced some of the finest portraits of the last century. One only has to cast an eye over his portraits of Dylan or William Nicholson or TE Lawrence or the many pictures he did of his lover, companion and Muse, Dorelia, to see evidence of his exceptional talents.
In the first part of his autobiography, Chiaroscuro (1952), John wrote vividly and fondly about Tenby and its characters “of a Dickensian originality”, of the Fair where “the air was rent with the blaring and whooping of roundabouts”, and the beaches which “provided ideal playgrounds…Long days were spent in and out of the sea at Lydstep, Manorbier and other lonely spots along the coast.” Of course, his diving accident at Giltar as a young man where he entered the sea a shy and solicitous student only to hit his head upon a rock and be re-born, scarred and bloodied, as the carefree Bohemian of his reputation, is well documented and it could easily be said that Tenby not only witnessed but was responsible for the emergence of this genius artist. In October 1959 the town bestowed the Freedom of the Borough on John. The Town and County News wrote, that he looked “deeply moved and at times somewhat overcome by…an emotion he did not try to conceal.” John claimed that “Tenby never looked more charming” and although he vowed to return it was to be his final visit to his birthplace. He died in 1961, aged 83.
There are several works by Augustus John (and his equally talented sister Gwen) on display at Tenby Museum, including items of personal memorabilia, which we acquired from the family. The museum recently received via bequest, five additional works by John, which will be put on display in early 2016 and the prospect of seeing these works for the first time on our walls is an exciting one.