Augustus Edwin John was born January 4, 1878, at Tenby, Pembrokeshire, to Edwin
William John and Augusta Smith. In 1894 he began four years of studies at the
School of Fine Art in London, where he worked under Henry Tonks and Frederick
During his time at the Slade School, John also studied the works of the Old Masters
at the National Gallery. After suffering a head injury while swimming at
Pembrokeshire in 1897, the quality of John's artwork, as well as his appearance
personality, changed. His methodical style became freer and bolder, and his work
started to gain notice. In 1898, John won the Slade Prize for his Moses and the Brazen Serpent.
John left the Slade School in 1898, and he held his first one-man exhibition in 1899
at the Carfax Gallery in London. Later that same year he traveled on the continent,
part of the time with a group consisting of the artist brothers Sir William
Rothenstein and Albert Rutherston, William Orpen, Sir Charles Conder, and Ida
Nettleship (a fellow Slade student). In France, he was influenced by the work
Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and Pablo Picasso.
In 1901, John married Ida Nettleship, and he took a position as an art instructor
the University of Liverpool. Here he produced many etchings, and also befriended
University Librarian, John Sampson, an authority on gypsies. John became interested
in gypsy culture; he later traveled with gypsies and learned their language and
In 1902, John moved to a studio space in London, where he started to paint more
portraits in order to support his growing family. That same year, he also began
relationship with Dorothy McNeill (to whom he gave the gypsy name Dorelia), a
of his sister, Gwen John. After Ida's death in childbirth in 1907, Dorelia became
the artist's wife in all but name. Also in 1907, he met James Dickson Innes, another
Welsh painter with whom he traveled in Wales. It was this friendship that inspired
John to paint landscapes in a more modern and impressionistic style. While John's
oil paintings still showed the influence of Rubens and other Old Masters, his
strongest works during this time were his drawings.
After World War I, John became best known for his portraits of literary and society
figures, in part because there was a great demand for his portraits, but also
because he needed the income. As a result, John had little time to work on the
large-scale imaginative paintings in which he was more interested.
In his later life, Augustus John wrote two autobiographical books, Chiaroscuro: Fragments of Autobiography (1952) and
Finishing Touches (1964, published posthumously).
He died October 31, 1961, in Fordingbridge, Hampshire.