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Provence and the British Imagination

Claire Davison
Béatrice Laurent
Caroline Patey
et al.

Landscapes of modernity

Into Gypsydom: Augustus John’s Provence

Francesca Cuojati

Texte intégral

John! John!
How he’s got on!
He owes it, he knows it, to me!
Brass earrings I wear
And I don’t do my hair,
And my feet are as bare as can be;
When I walk down the street,
All the people I meet
They stare at the things I have on!
When Battersea-Parking
You’ll hear folks remarking:
“There goes an Augustus John!”

(Holroyd 1997, 610)

  • 1 A reproduction of the 28 March Sketch coverage of the event can be found in Tickner (2000, 49-50). (...)

1By the time Mrs Grundy and the John Beauty Chorus were singing this refrain at the Chelsea Palace Theatre, Augustus John’s consecration as the embodiment of the British Bohemian par excellence was complete. It was 1917 and the singing and pantomime performance was part of a ʻMonster Matinéeʼ organised to raise funds in aid of soldiers at the front. The London event, subtitled A Sage Revue of the Augustan Age, was covered with a double-page spread of photographs and commentary in the supplement of the The Sketch.1

  • 2 November-February (1918), Alpine Club, Pictures and Decorations (67 exhibits).

2These were days in which John’s larger-than-life gypsy demeanor in Chelsea and elsewhere was legendary. He had become a celebrity and when the largest exhibition of his pictures ever assembled was held at the Alpine Club in November,2 The Times saluted him as “the most famous of living English painters” (Holroyd 1997, 425). By then, however, painting was only a secondary aspect of the unconventional way of life the artist was leading, and acclaim of John’s achievement by avant-garde critics was on the wane: “One feels the virtuoso obtruding himself into a picture that ought to be as naïve in execution as it is on conception” (Holroyd 1997, 425), reported one critic of the show. Decades of remunerative portrait-painting and grandscale, unfinished decorative-group-painting would follow: “The rest [was] a disappointing – and, year by year, a more disappointing – story” (Easton and Holroyd 1974, 23). It was John’s turn, in 1952, to bestow a retrospective glance on that old bohemian persona of his own devise; his autobiographical words did not spare any irony to his theatrical self:

[a]s for clothing, according to my Golden Rule, the ‘importance of appearances’ insisted on at home already had made my neglect of them a duty. But now a new kind of exhibitionism was born; in its way, as exact and conscientious as my father’s cult of the clothes-brush: a kind of inverted Dandysm. If my shoes were unpolished, they were especially made to my own design. If I abjured a collar, the black silk scarf that took its place was attached with an antique silver brooch which came from Greece. The velvet additions to my coat were no taylor’s but my own afterthought, nor were my gold earrings heirlooms, for I bought them myself: the hat I wore, of a quality that only age can impart, might have been borrowed from one of Callot’s Gypsies and was as a matter of fact a gift from one of their descendants. My abundant hair and virgin beard completed an ensemble, which, if harmonious in itself, often failed to recommend me to strangers. (John 1975, 307)

3Even in his own memories, John’s fame as vagabond, philanderer and dweller in Gypsydom had grown to be so overwhelming a stereotype to obscure the early originality of his artistic merits and the fresh modernity of his best ‘gypsy’ painting. If one thinks that John was simply not represented in the 1987 Royal Academy Exhibition British Art in the Twentieth Century: The Modern Movement, it becomes clear that his banishment from the world of fine arts and his confinement into that of fashionable extravaganza and excess lasted very long indeed.

  • 3 Caravan in Romany.
  • 4 See also Nicholson 2003.
  • 5 Lavengro (1851), The Romany Rye (1857).
  • 6 Founded in Edinburgh in 1888 by scholars with a semi-academic ethnographic and philological interes (...)
  • 7 In those days, Gypsylorists weren’t the only ones concerned: “During the early years modernism, ima (...)

4The attributes of a studied spontaneity, the brass earrings, messy hair and bare feet of the 1917 refrain, supplemented by sandals, large black hats, leather boots and vardos3 were the trappings of the ‘gypsy trope’, a mode which Lisa Tickner has thoroughly investigated and contextualized outside and inside John’s life and work (Tickner 2000, 49-78). Together with Janet Lyon’s (2004), Tickner’s research into modernist utopias and counter-modern or open-air forms of sociability and communal life and art have focused on the Romany cult, according to her one among their most remarkable Edwardian antecedents and ingredients.4 In the footsteps of Raymond Williams (1973) Tickner has observed that “[D]uring the 1880s and 1890s an increasingly urban population began nostalgically to consume idealized representations of a rural life that had, in fact, been in decline since the severe agricultural depression of the 1870s” (2000, 56). Sifting through long-forgotten publications advocating ʻthe simple lifeʼ of outdoor leisure pursuits in contrast to the unhealthiness of existence in the modern city, she has mapped out a social and cultural area in which the emulation of the gypsy way of life was ubiquitous: from the romantic cult of the path epitomized in George Borrow’s books5 to ethnographic and philological attention paid by the Gypsy Lore Society6 to the ways and languages of Gypsies, not to forget the practical ‘how to’ concern with the proper construction and use of traditional tents for camping (2000, 54-59).7

5Tickner’s stringent cultural argumentation is substantiated by Baudelaire, Simmel and Benjamin and hinges on parallels and oppositions between the urban figure of the flâneur and that of the pastoral tramp. John’s experience, however, has, according to her, its irreducible distinctiveness and a distinct complexity. Not only was John by no means the first to discover the “gypsy trope, the pleasures of tramping, camping and learning Romany” (Tickner 2000, 54), but he also did not really fit in the roles such model entailed: “He was not a gentleman gypsy: he had neither the money nor the inclination. And he was not a tramp: his Romany affiliations and identifications were too intense” (2000, 62). At the same time, as Tickner concedes, “he wanted on some level to be this thing” and “not just to visit camps, converse and carouse there but to live in this imaginary space and make of its tribe his identity and his art” (2000, 62).

  • 8 See also Tickner 1994.
  • 9 See Caws and Bird Wright 2000 and Patey 2006. John first travelled to Provence in 1910 while it was (...)

6Although she does consider in such context some 1905 “small, fresh and spontaneous oil sketches of [his] women and children” (2000, 53) and the gender issues stemming from John’s patronising and patriarcal masculinity,8 Tickner addresses John’s gypsy camp as a site in which aesthetic and existential dimensions meet and merge. The artits’s ambiguous modernity is then apprehended first by analyzing the dramatic quality of the 1909 oil Woman Smiling and then by illustrating the failed ideal in the grand scale Lyric Fantasy dated 1913-1914. The cultural slant of Tickner’s illuminating criticism therefore has left almost no room for the events, both personal and artistic, which befell Augustus John around 1910 in Provence. Events not inconsistent with John’s previous joining in with the Romany in England, attracted as he was by their language and culture: This is why John’s Provençal experience had a more intimate relevance for him and and a greater impact on his visual imagination than for other British intellectuals – Bloomsbury – who would have followed in his steps.9

  • 10 Woolf’s arch-famous drawing-room anecdote on how Bloomsbury came to plain speaking about sex in 190 (...)

7What are we to make, then, of John’s Bohemian persona? Was his real brotherhood with the Gypsies truly meaningful to “the visual lyricist whose early accomplishment interpret [ed] English, French and Welsh landscape through poetic eyes” (Holroyd 1997, xxxii)? And if so, how? In the lapse of time contained between 1908, a year associated by Virginia Woolf with the ‘time of John’,10 and its ironic dismissal as past history – the ‘Augustan Age’ of the 1917 Revue – a path will be retraced: along which John’s personal restlessness and aesthetic quest would harmonise and coalesce for a short while. On this route, Provence will be discovered as both a home and a crossroad where the ever displaced gypsy painter could nurture his “magnificent beginnings” (Holroyd 1997, xxxii) with new colours and shapes so as to create a unique visual language, however fleeting it was bound to remain.

Gustavus Janik

8Biographer Michael Holroyd maintains that John’s romance with Gypsies went back to his childhood in Wales. As a reaction to the suffocating Edwardian education imposed by his family, the “mutinous pupil” (Holroyd 1997, 19) felt a kinship with the gypsies which “arose not just from the fact that [his father] disapproved of them but from his having warned his son they might capture him and bring him up as one of their own. He longed to be kidnapped. At home he felt an outcast, and at school it was with the outcast he grew most sympathetic” (Holroyd 1997, 26). It was while in Liverpool, working as art instructor at the School of Art in 1901, that John made friends with John Sampson, librarian of the local University College and self-taught linguist who would later publish a scholarly classic, The Dialect of the Gypsies of Wales (1926). The sense of a special friendship mixed with ethnographic fervour, twinned with the conviction of accessing an utterly mysterious realm, permeate John’s recollections of that period:

Our visits to Cabbage Hall and other camping grounds were rich in incident. ‘Cabbage Hall’ for us denoted a large patch of waste ground, where the Boswells were in the habit of encamping during the winter months. Under Sampson’s aegis I was made welcome in the tents and got to know their occupants, who bore such exotic names as Noah, Kenza, Eros, Bohemia, Sinfai, Athaliah, Counseletta, Alabaina, Tihanna, Simpronius, Saiforella... By showing a sympathetic interest in their speech and customs, and without neglecting the lubricative medium of liquor, the collusion with the men was assured: they admitted us into their confidence and disclosed their tribal secrets unreservedly. (John 1975, 70)

  • 11 See Jenkins and Stephens (2004, 212) for a bibliography of John’s contributions to the JLSJ: they m (...)

9John then joined the Gypsy Lore Society under the new Romany name of Gustavus Janik, learned Romany, bought caravans, camped with Gypsies in North Wales and Essex, on Dartmoor and in the Grantchester meadows or again near Norwich, becoming also a contributor to the Society Journal.11 His romance with Gypsydom, however, reached far beyond pseudo-scholarly ethnography; it came to articulate his life and work and proved to John a crucial site where disparate presences conflated: the visual and the literary, the ancient past and the modern, clacissim and the vernacular.

  • 12 See for example the etching Lady with a Necklace (Ida Nettleship), and the oil on Merikli (meaning (...)

10If Franz Hals and Jacques Callot were significant influences on his early artistic practice for their choice of subjects as well as their technique,12 it was later the symbolist primitivism of Puvis de Chavanne, Gauguin and Picasso that he absorbed in his own, peculiar way. The gypsy motive was also in the air of the time: beside George Borrow, his literary contemporaries offered John a wealth of nomadic moods and motives, from Arthur Ransome’s Bohemia in London (1907) to the pastoralism of the Georgian Poets and Rupert Brooke, who incidentally gladly welcomed the artist in Grantchester in 1909.

11More was behind the corner: John’s involvement with the Gypsies soon came to shape his family and private life as well. Married in 1900 to Ida Nettelship, a Slade School student, around 1903 John had started a relationship with Dorothy McNeill, a typist from Camberwell whose enigmatic personality and unique taste for dressing ‘artistically’ ignited his imagination to the point that he began fantasizing she had gypsy origins and decided to change her name into that of Dorelia.13 He was soon teaching her Romany and entertaining an intense correspondence in the language with her. The ensuing ménage à trois, and the numerous children John had from both Ida and Dorelia thus turned the family into a real clan or tribe; and since the Gypsies usually did not want to sit for him or, if they did, he complained that “they immediately changed expression and look less intelligent” (Holroyd 1997, 310), he painted his family instead.

12Beyond mere convenience, however, loomed a sense of identification with the Romany. Around 1905 John experimented with oil sketches like Encampment on Dartmoor and Caravan: A Gypsy Encampment (Jenkins and Stephens 2004, 18, 79), featuring his wife and lover attired in gypsy clothes, together with his children David, Caspar and Robin, himself looking out of the van: “The imagined viewer looks on from the interior of the tent, as if the more conventional critic is here being shown a new, ideal out-of-doors family” (Jenkins and Stephens 2004, 79). Caravan at Dusk and The Woman in the Tent (Easton and Holroyd 1974, 113, 115) date from the same period, when Dorelia’s son Pyramus was born, probably in the tent of the title. The small size and quick colourful brushstrokes that make up those oils suggest they have been painted from life.

13Notwithstanding Ida’s death of childbirth complications in 1907, by 1909 John’s tribe and convoy of caravans, carts and animals was still on the road. After camping near Cambridge, they moved to a piece of waste ground close to Norwich; Dorelia’s younger sister Edie was with them and helped with the children. Charles Slade, who lived nearby, took snapshots now visible in the photograph collection of the National Portrait Gallery; far from the serene atmosphere of the 1905 sketches, they are powerful portraits of sombre, worn out and crouching women dressed in torn shawls and turbans; and feature a wild, dark-eyed man in sandals smoking a pipe and looking sideways.14 The true hardship of life on the road is all there to be seen: according to Holroyd’s reconstruction of events, the horses had began to die off and the boys had caught whooping cough. Still, no sooner Augustus was back in London, having left some of his vans and sons with Slade, he started to speculate about new wanderings: “I wish I had the vans in France. Do you know how much it would cost to have them over the Channel?” (Holroyd 1997, 294), he asked.

To Provence

14In the meantime, John had established himself as the most interesting English painter of the moment with the canvas entitled A Woman Smiling (1909), the portrait of a gypsy Gioconda which was to procure him an American patron, John Quinn, and various commissions among which that of decorating the walls of Sir Hugh Lane’s house in Cheyne Walk, London, with three grand-scale group murals. Soon at work on them, he suddenly felt paralysed by the dull atmosphere of life in London and its rhythm. To Ottoline Morrell, John wrote: “I have serious thoughts of quitting this island and going somewhere where life is more stable and beautiful and primitive and where one is not bound to be in a hurry” (Holroyd 1997, 305). It was then he asked a gypsy girl to sit for him at Lane’s house; when the sitter arrived accompanied by a whole band of noisy Romany that made merry around all rooms, Lane was scared to death by their invasion and John found a reason to break with him and leave with his canvases.

  • 15 See Lloyd-Morgan (1996, 44), plate IX. John’s letters of the period to close friends and Dorelia ab (...)

15In the middle of January 1910, made affluent by the first cheque received from Quinn, Augustus left London to explore French and Italian galleries. Dorelia, pregnant again, stayed behind with Edie, her friend Helen Maitland and the children; she would join him later. By train, he set out to Provence, stopped at Avignon, caught a glimpse of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon which “looked like an illumination from a Book of Hours” (John 1975, 120), visited the Popes’ Palace admiring the fragmentary frescoes by Simone Martini and spotted Le Ventoux to the North. What excited him most, however, were not the works of art nor the cultural landmarks; “I get tired of museums”, he wrote to Dorelia (Holroyd 1997, 308). John then went to Arles and travelled in Camargue, visited Les Baux, where he was introduced to Mistral by a strange, mad character met on the road. The poet was not very welcoming and refused to sit for him when John asked permission to draw his portrait. More amused than offended by a denial, John sketched the poet all the same in a letter to Dorelia, wearing a broad brimmed hat.15 But the noble Troubadour of old and the the langue d’oc revival hardly impressed the painter; the true meaning of Provence resided among the Gypsies:

“Lačo dives,” I remarked to a Gypsy girl as she passed by: “Ker’la šil,” she replied in her beautiful dialect, thought by the learned to be long since extinct. […] I drank cheap wine with ‘Le Marseillais’, a humorous vagrant whose acquaintance I had made… I lingered in the company of maquignons and improved my vocabulary. (John 1975, 120)

16According to Holroyd, “[John’s] travels took in more encampments than galleries” (1997, 308), and, in Provence above all, he was enthralled by the Gypsies he met almost everywhere – Spanish gitanos, Russian calderari, Balkan sinnte, free, intriguing people with whom he could talk Romany, share more than one meal, dance, sing, camp and collect materials for his contributions to the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society. What touched him deeply during this first stay in the region was a series of chance encounters with some Russian Gypsies. Started at Marseilles, where he spent one whole week in their company, and ended some weeks later in Milan, John’s communion with them is recorded in his article “Russian Gypsies at Marseilles and Milan” for the JGLS (1911), the core of the contribution consisting of a transcription of the vocabulary, with the songs and the tales he was able to collect during the journey.

17Leaving drawing and sketching aside for the moment, John word-painted a sequence of descriptive vignettes interspersed with Romany expressions. By the end of the piece, his informants had all turned into powerful characters and perhaps even role-models:

Opposite me, at the foot of the Porte d’Aix, lounged a group of Gitanos of Almeria, with bright diklos over the shoulder, their jetty black hair brushed rigidly forward over the ears and there snipped abruptly, their staves in their hands, and the instruments of the craft of the tondeur de chiens hanging at their sides in little bags. From time to time young Romis crossed the Place, aloof and enigmatic, like nuns of some unknown and brilliant order. [...] an even more remarkable figure [...] now hoved in sight. It belonged to a tall and bulky man of middle age, attired in voluminous high-boots, baggy trousers decorated at the sides with insertions of green and red, a short braided coat garnished with huge silver pendants and chains, and a hat of less magnificence if of greater antiquity upon his shaggy head. This singular personage was making his way slowly across the Place, looking this way and that, while puffing at his great German pipe, and acknowledging with dignity as he passed the salutations of the loungers. (John 1911, 217)

18There is a particular intensity in John’s narrative, due no doubt to the accurate precision of gestures and attires and emphasized moreover by the vivid chromatism of the scene and its almost religious solemnity (“nuns,” “enigmatic,” “dignity”).

A terrific kelipen was taking place on the evening of my arrival, and was continued the next morning when I visited the camp and took down the song Šunta, Mimi, šunta! from a youth named Putzardinka – no easy task amid the din of twenty hammers beating twenty copper vessels of all shapes and sizes, and the yelling and vociferation of the wildest crew on earth. In the tent of pleasure sat Todor, an elderly man, in a condition approaching frenzy, with the elders of the tribe on either hand. Todor had insisted on his wife assuming all her jewels, including a massive belt of elaborate metal-work, and dancing before him; and he hoarsely shrieked for his great gold mugs to be fetched, filled with wine, and placed on the skafidi. There they stood, a foot high, and elaborately chased. Todor in his Bacchic exstasy would shatter his great German pipe, only to be handed another; to charm him, the surrounding Romnia lifted up their voices and sang wild songs, and a šukar čai danced with a grace that was antique. But Todor beat the time upon the table until the bottles leapt. Behind, three young men swayed in an extricable embrace, their countenances illuminated with sombre shining eyes. Without the tent, a crowd of gâje surveyed the strange scene in a state resembling hypnotic trance. The absolute isolation of the Gypsies seemed to me the rarest and most unattainable thing in the world. The music, which surged and died away like some natural phenomenon, affected me strangely. “Kerela te knmav te rovav”, I mourned to my neighbour, and tore myself away with difficulty. (John 1911, 220-21)

19John’s spiritual sense of belonging to a community and of sharing its rituals truly deserves an extended quotation, as does the synaesthetic and inebriating quality of this altogether exceptional experience. Engrossed with the view of being on the road with the Gypsies, John nonetheless had to comply with a first stop in Genoa, a town he much disliked for what he deemed its bourgeois and overcultivated nature when he compared it with the genuine roughness of Marseilles. In the following couple of weeks, however, John came to love the country, especially the Tuscan landscape, and in Siena, Orvieto, Perugia, Sansepolcro, Florence and Padua he could see works by Lorenzetti, Perugino, Piero della Francesca, Botticelli and Giotto that laid a basis for the eccentric primitivism he developed once back in Provence. In Marseilles again, where the “atmosphere [was] less charged with the accumulated glory of the past” (Holroyd 1997, 312), the Madonnas of the Italian primitives started conflating, in John’s imagination, with the Gitanas of the road: “One sees beautiful Gitano girls about with orange, green and purple clothes... Hundreds of people to paint… One of the women, without being very dark, is as splendid as antiquity and her character is that of the Mother of God” (Holroyd 1997, 313).

20Yet, the picture was not complete until Dorelia, Helen Maitland and the children joined him in Arles and the tribe was finally reunited. From there they headed South by train and, skirting the Étang de Berre, arrived in Martigues, mesmerized by the changing colours around them. Martigues was then not unknown to painters “occupied in transposing with their palette knives the pearl-white and rose of the buildings into the more popular scheme of mustard and mauve” (John 1975, 122). Carefully avoiding their company, John rented the Villa Sainte Anne and in solitude produced small-scale studies which to him marked “an absolute technical step” (Holroyd 1997, 326) and would be useful for his Hugh Lane decorations.

21The Seventh Child, an extremely enjoyable autobiographical book written in 1932 by Augustus John’s son Romilly, offers some telling recollections of Martigues and the family stay. Romilly was then very young and it is not unlikely that a few, at least, of the images evoked may owe to the studies painted by his father as much as to childhood memories:

A yellow cliff towering up above me: about half-way up it a woman, who consisted of three pyramids, one large and black, resting above its wide base, another white, not quite so large, inverted, and looking something like a top when it is spinning […]. I doubtless tired of craning my neck upwards. The next image is a vast expense of blue water […]. We were at that time staying at Martigues, a small town near Marseilles, and the sea I have mentioned was really the Étang de Berre. Our house, the Villa Ste Anne, stood some way from the village, at the top of the yellow cliff, which, by the way, was nothing but a steep bank five over six yards high. It looked out over the lagoon. On our side of the water were rocky grey hills, covered with a million smelling herbs and with plantations of pine trees. (John R. [1932] 1975, 11-12)

22The extraordinarily pictorial character of the landcsape found an appropriate echo in the colourful depiction of its inhabitants:

  • 16 Given his parents’ extravagances in both dressing and living, ironically, Romilly was to develop a (...)

The total effect must have been both strange and beautiful. The clothes worn by my mother were quite unlike anything to be seen elsewhere; they were long and very flowing, and she wore a broad-brimmed black hat with an enormous ostrich feather. […] Besides dressing beautifully, she was the most beautiful person […] ever seen. My father was also extraordinarily handsome; he was, as a personality, to say the least overwhelming; and it is more than possible that his clothes […] were almost as unorthodox as Dorelia’s. As for us children, our numbers as much perhaps as our get-up must have added picturesqueness to the whole effect; we had bright coloured pinafores and knickerbockers, and bobbed hair” (John R. [1932] 1975, 12-13).16

Provençal Studies

The technique appears to be, at its simplest, to make a pencil drawing on a small board covered with colourless priming, then the outlines are washed in with a generous brush loaded with pure and brilliant oil colour, the lines […] are those of any John drawing, subtly lapping and rounding the volume they conjure up, but they are obliterated by the oils, and the result for effect relies in the inscape of colour, on contrasting colour, and the broad simplified pattern. (Wintle 2002, 252)

23Conceived as steps towards completing the group murals for Hugh Lane, Provençal Studies reunited John’s drawing and painting and were exhibited at the Chenil Gallery, Chelsea, from November 1910, while the debate around Manet and the Post-Impressionists was infuriating. The art venue, in an old Georgian house on the King’s Road, was itself a statement: in a way it “threatened to displace Bond Street, Pall Mall, and St. James as the leader in taste-making, but on its own terms – paying homage to Bohemian authenticity as opposed to the seductive glitter ascribed to the West-End” (Helmreich and Holt, 2010, 50). The Provençal studies proved how much the peculiar light and landscape of Provence had transformed John’s palette and redefined his style. They celebrate outdoor life and Mediterranean primitivism and portray figures in which it is not difficult to identify Dorelia and John’s children. Forty-eight or fifty altogether, like the Gypsies who concurred in their conception, their destiny was to be scattered around the world after Quinn decided to get rid of his Johns to buy works by either his sister Gwen or by the French Post-Impressionists:

It would be difficult, if not impossible, to account for each and every one of these fifty little paintings, some on canvas but the most characteristic on panel. Quinn’s own enormous holding had been scattered to the four winds. Since Percy More Turner [proprietor of The Independent Gallery, in London], on this side of the Atlantic, had a great deal to do with their disposal, many found their way into British private and public collections. Others remained in America, or were carried across the border into Canada. (Easton and Holroyd 1974, 17)

  • 17 These paintings are now in the Fitzwilliam Museum Collection in Cambridge and reproductions can be (...)

24Anna Greuzner Robins explains how the panels in John’s show have not been conclusively identified (1997, 46-51) although the titles in the exhibition catalogue allow at least some association with the works now known as Dorelia and the Children at Martigues, Study in Provence, Woman with a Daffodil,17 Near the Villa Sainte Anne, Dorelia Seated in the Lanscape, Children Paddling and Dorelia Wearing a Turban (Jenkins and Stephens 2004, 108-110). Patches of pure red, blue and yellow build up the figures dressed in loose robes, pinafores and turbans, sitting or standing in a timeless landscape of earthy land, sapphire sea and green olive trees. Gestures are large, skies are clear. To understand the nature of such small, striking panels, their primitive simplicity verging on the abstract and their striking style, Janet Lyon’s considerations and Ysanne Holt’s critical analysis are helpful. In John’s inability to paint picturesque scenes where individual Gypsies or the actual Martigues landscape would be recognizable, Holt recognizes an important clue to modernist landscape: “Crucially, then, John’s ideal is delocalized; his is an imagined arcadia, his own edition of the ‘universe of space’ – made rather than found. His models are languid and inactive […] they have cleared out and now possess the space and command the view. As figures they are in perfect harmony with the environment” (2003, 66-57). Lyon on another hand links John’s serial encounters with the Gypsies and his contributions to the JGLS to what she calls “abstracted sociability” or “impersonal intimacy”; an attitude which gives sense to his way of “sustain [ing] community even as it disavows bourgeois emphasis on the ‘character’ or ‘personality’ that grounds modern possessive individualism” (Lyon 2004, 530). What is fresh and surprising in John’s Provence is therefore ‘gypsy’ in its transposition to a dreamy, delocalised realm of Vagabondia, where individuals become the avant-garde figures of an impersonal community: paradoxically, the Gypsies have appropriated as a home the paths trodden by the ever displaced tribes of the people in transit.

  • 18 See also Greutzner Robins 1997 for press coverage of the Chenil exhibition.

25It has been argued by Michael Holroyd and Malcolm Easton that the relevance, impact and radical originality of Provençal Studies can only be properly assessed if the reviews and reactions they provoked in the fated year 1910 are considered in relation with those of the Post-Impressionist exhibition organised by Roger Fry at the Grafton Galleries in the same days. To prove that “John was neither insular nor reactionary” (Easton and Holroyd 1974, 20), scholar and biographer have turned to the newspapers of the time and determined that John’s small oil panels were received by traditionalists “with the same caterwaul of horror which greeted the exactly contemporary showing of ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’” (Easton and Holroyd 1974, 20). Those who showed enthusiasm, instead, like critic, poet and dramatist Laurence Binyon, compared John’s studies to Gauguin, Matisse and Van Gogh, all of them significantly represented in the controversial Grafton show.18 Holroyd, moreover, has observed how convergent John’s and Fry’s developing conceptions of contemporary art were at the time: both associated to the Old Masters in their training, they had simultaneously and independently first experienced a new understanding of the Italian Primitives, which had subsequently led them to an insightful appreciation of modern French painters.

26John’s first reaction to Fry’s exhibition has long been misinterpreted and misrepresented as harsh disapproval of and dislike for the works on show. When he defined the whole event “A bloody show”, John was probably expressing his hostility to the hubbub caused by the scandal rather than criticizing the paintings exhibited (Holroyd 1997, 327, 361). It is important to stress that by then John’s appreciation of the so-called Post-Impressionists was already an undisputable fact attested by his visits to Paris and his correspondence, from which we also learn, incidentally, that he had had the rare opportunity to see Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon and praised their power and bold primitive organisation.

27Many factors accounted for John’s absence from the 1912 Second Post-Impressionist exhibition where Clive Bell had nonetheless invited him to contribute: Indolence, a true loyalty to his gallerist Jack Knewstub, allegiance to the New English Art Club and to Will Rothenstein, his impresario and Fry’s rival on the London avant-garde art scene. John’s process of isolation had started and it was completed by the 1911 move with his family to Alderney Manor, in Dorset; the loner with little tolerance for the deviousness of cultural politics and urbanity had found a home for the sixteen years to come, proving true his saying that “the artist is always an outsider” (Holroyd 1997, 372; Jenkins and Stephens 2004, 134).

Epilogue: Les Maries

28After the Chenil exhibition, John resumed his mural painting for Sir Hugh Lane. Long unfinished after Lane’s death on the Lusitania in 1915, the large composition underwent several pentimenti and revisions over the years. Lyric Fantasy (c 1913-14),19 The Mumpers (1911-13) and Forza e Amore (1911-13, subsequently overpainted) integrate the fruits of John’s 1910 experience in Italy and Provence. At the core of these decorative paintings, the motives of motherhood and femininity. Commenting on the hovering presence of long dead Ida Nettleship in the compositions, which as always include John’s women and children, Lisa Tickner has interpreted the works in terms of Kleinian reparation of the early loss of John’s mother and wife. What is thus represented, according to her, is the universal loss of those closely knit communities, whether archaic and patriarchal or gypsy and exotic, disrupted forever by industrialisation and urbanization (Tickner 2000, 70-77). Ideal groups of women and children are projected in an arcadia endowed with restorative qualities and thick with symbolist undertones. John’s provençal obsession for Madonnas, exemplified in his Notre Dame de Martigues (1910) – meek, monumental and primitive at the same time – resurfaces here in a more complex network of associations, recollections and influences. Strongly reminiscent of John’s beloved Puvis de Chavanne, the timeless Madonnas of the murals also hark back to the Madonnas of Provence and in particular to the black Virgin visited in reiterated pilgrimages to Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer and of course to the Italian primitives: “Memory was fundamental to the process of John’s paintings, which are themselves visualizations of accumulated imagery” (Tickner 2000, 67). Provence was to John the catalyst of the imagery he had stored in the camps of Gypsies, in their gatherings in Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer and in the historical towns of Italy: he couldn’t help but project it all on the members of his family whether alive like Dorelia and his children or dead and idealised like Ida.

29It is no coincidence that John’s last uncompleted grand scale project should have been an extreme and desperate attempt at paying a tribute to Provence: a mural based on Les Saintes Maries, a triptych conceived to commemorate the landing in Camargue of the legendary Maries with their servant Sara, who cared for the Gypsies and became the patron saint of the small town. Back in 1910, John had inquired insistently about Sainte Sara and the gypsy pilgrimage to Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer:

‘This pilgrimage may be the last of the old pilgrim mysteries of the gypsies,’ he assured Scott Macfie (14 May 1910). He ransacked the library at Aix; he reverently inspected the bones of the Egyptian saint at Saintes-Maries. […] For though Sainte Sara was a problem to be solved by the Gypsy Lore Society, to Augustus she remained a symbol, and the annual fête at Saintes-Maries a renewed act of faith” (Holroyd 1997, 319).

30And so it was that the life and works of Augustus John ended in 1961 with a last Provençal incursion into the gypsy community he had always felt part of and a vision of their Sainte and Maries; a vision he knew he could not complete, admitting, in tears: “My work’s not good enough” (Easton and Holroyd 1974, 31). A study for the central panel of the triptych (pen, ink and wash on patched white paper) is reproduced in Easton and Holroyd (1974, 210); it shows the figure of an old Gypsy man in broad-brimmed hat holding a stringed instrument and surrounded by the Maries and Sara. After John’s death, the unfinished, original mural was covered with graffiti and lashes of paint by vandals who broke into his studio at Fryern Court, Fordingbridge. But in spite of the dissemination of some works and of the damage done to it, the Provence of Gypsies stayed with John for his whole life, showing the impossible way of a utopian society but above all giving shape and power to his aethetic thought and achievement.


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1 A reproduction of the 28 March Sketch coverage of the event can be found in Tickner (2000, 49-50). Tickner also provides a detailed description of the event programme; the Executive Committee included John himself together with Carrington, Sir Philip Bourne-Jones and William Nicholson among others. The text of the grand finale song ‘Augustus John’ by Henry Graham was printed in full in the programme and can be read in Holroyd (1997, 610-612).

2 November-February (1918), Alpine Club, Pictures and Decorations (67 exhibits).

3 Caravan in Romany.

4 See also Nicholson 2003.

5 Lavengro (1851), The Romany Rye (1857).

6 Founded in Edinburgh in 1888 by scholars with a semi-academic ethnographic and philological interest in Gypsies, the GLS was revived in Liverpool at the beginning of the new century thanks to John Sampson (1862-1931), R. A. Scott Macfie (1868-1935) and Dora Yates (1879-1974).

7 In those days, Gypsylorists weren’t the only ones concerned: “During the early years modernism, images of Gypsy community were everywhere in the local and national press” (Lyon 2004, 532), and the community attracted the attention of enthusiastic philantropists as well. Intent on documenting illiteracy, poor hygienic conditions and degenerated habits, visitors of the camps started calling for legislative measures to bring gypsies into the orbit of state regulation. Thanks to recent studies, the fact that the ‘emulating’ and ‘civilizing’ attitudes towards Gypsies were coexisting with more disturbing notions as race, purity and Orientalism, has been throughly investigated. Such issues largely exceed the scope of this article, though they remain in its background as inherent to the cultural and aesthetic process which fuelled primitivism in British culture and art. See Nord 2006, Trumpener 1992, Turrini 2007.

8 See also Tickner 1994.

9 See Caws and Bird Wright 2000 and Patey 2006. John first travelled to Provence in 1910 while it was only in 1915 that Roger Fry reached Cassis in the steps of Derain and Matisse.

10 Woolf’s arch-famous drawing-room anecdote on how Bloomsbury came to plain speaking about sex in 1908 opens as follows: “It was a spring evening-Vanessa and I were sitting in the drawing room. The drawing-room had largely changed since 1904. The Sargent-Furse age was over. The age of Augustus John was dawning. His Pyramus filled one entire wall. The Watts portraits of my father and my mother were hung downstairs if they were hung at all” (Woolf 1978, 195).

11 See Jenkins and Stephens (2004, 212) for a bibliography of John’s contributions to the JLSJ: they mainly consist of long word-lists compiled in the camps, folk-songs noted down while carousing with Gypsies, stories heard in front of the fire.

12 See for example the etching Lady with a Necklace (Ida Nettleship), and the oil on Merikli (meaning “jewel” in Romany), both 1902, featuring his wife as a seventeenth-century type to be often met in Dutch painting (Jenkins and Stephens 2004, 64, 65).

13 See Dorelia Standing before a Fence c. 1903-4 in the Tate Gallery “Dorelia John may have been seen in Babylon or in early Crete, but before her in this century no woman wore those clothes that are almost Indian and yet are entirely European, that are classical and yet have abstracted something from the gypsies” (Beaton 1954, 185). Photographed by Cecil Beaton in 1947, Dorelia still dressed the same unique way with Provençal fabrics

14 See the National Portrait Gallery online collections

15 See Lloyd-Morgan (1996, 44), plate IX. John’s letters of the period to close friends and Dorelia abound in humorous pencil and ink sketches of himself on the road and of the people he met.

16 Given his parents’ extravagances in both dressing and living, ironically, Romilly was to develop a kind of conformism that would grant him acceptance by his peers at school: “I became infected with the disease of school conformism. […] I contracted a habit of inserting secretly after the Lord’s Prayer a little clause to the effect that Dorelia might be brought by divine intervention to wear proper clothes” (John 1975, 52, 53).

17 These paintings are now in the Fitzwilliam Museum Collection in Cambridge and reproductions can be seen at the following links in the BBC Yourpaintings website, developed in partnership with the Public Catalogue Foundation:;;

18 See also Greutzner Robins 1997 for press coverage of the Chenil exhibition.

19 See the Tate Gallery website


She received her PhD in English Studies from the Università degli Studi di Milano, where she teaches English. As a literary scholar, her interests focus on the relationship between poetry and mental illness in the Victorian Age, the interactions between landscape, architecture and literature and she has written on Thomas De Quincey, Adrian Stokes, John Clare and Edmund de Waal. She has co-edited the volume Anglo-American Modernity and The Mediterranean, Milano, Cisalpino, 2006 and translated into Italian John Soane’s Crude Hints Toward An History of My House at Lincon’s Inn Fields, Palermo, Sellerio, 2010. Francesca is a member of the editorial board of Letteratura e Letterature. Rivista Internazionale di Comparatistica e Critica.


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