The Way Down to the Sea
by Augustus E. John
13.2-John_WayDowntoSea-Tate-80
Augustus E. John (Welsh-British, 1878–1961), The Way Down to the Sea, 1909–11. Oil on canvas, 29⅞ × 26⅜ in. (76 × 67 cm).

Augustus John (1878-1961)
The Way Down to the Sea, 1909-1911
Oil on canvas, 30 x 26 ¼ in. (76 x 67 cm)
Private collection

At the Armory Show
Augustus John was represented by thirty-eight paintings and drawings at the Armory Show’s New York venue, making him the most generously represented artist after Odilon Redon. The majority were lent by John’s friend, the New York attorney and collector John Quinn, who was one of his most generous patrons. It was an important introduction to an American audience, and the critics were eager for the opportunity to examine John’s work. A writer for the New York Tribune remarked: “In London he is already a legend. . . . but we have not before had the chance to see here what the man’s art is really like.” [1]

A major painting
The Way Down to the Sea was the largest and most important of the works by John that Quinn lent to the Armory Show. Its tone is symbolist and owes much to the French painter Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, although its intended meaning is uncertain. The work may represent a reconstruction of the artist’s family—his wife Ida, who had died in 1907, and his mistress Dorelia with one of their children, and perhaps Dorelia’s sister Jessie and another of John’s lovers, Euphemia Lamb. [2]

The response
Reviews of the painting were generally favorable, though the critics were dismayed by their inability to decipher its intended meaning. The critic for the New-York Tribune described John as “a realist by instinct … mistakenly trying to be something else,” and used The Way Down to the Sea to illustrate his point: “In attitude and gesture, as well as in the broad lines of the composition, he unmistakably endeavors to invest his subject with some peculiar meaning . . . . But in the upshot all this remains dark to the observer, who wonders why a group of peasants descending to the shore should proceed as upon some ritualistic business.” [3]

[1] “Further Impressions of the International Show,” New-York Tribune, March 9, 1913, 2:6.

[2] Gwen and Augustus John, ed. David Fraser Jenkins and Chris Stephens, exh. cat. (London: Tate Publishing, 2004), 129.

[3]  “Further Impressions of the International Show.”

Augustus John (1878-1961)

The archetypal rebel and bohemian artist Augustus John was born in Wales, worked primarily in England and France, became an influential proponent of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism in the United Kingdom, and was celebrated first in London and then internationally for his portraits and expressive figure paintings and drawings. He was the brother of the painter Gwen John, who also contributed work to the Armory Show. Both studied art at the Slade School in London in the 1890s and created works that emphasized imagination and escape. [1]

About 1897 John went to Paris, where he was influenced by the work of the symbolist painter Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. By 1901 John was teaching art at the University of Liverpool to support his young family. There he befriended John Sampson, a librarian who sparked John’s interest in the Romani people, often called gypsies. John—with his wife Ida Nettleship, his mistress Dorelia McNeill, and his children by both women—began to travel the English countryside in a caravan, cultivating his reputation as a glamorous and romantic bohemian. His portraits and figure paintings from this period demonstrated technical proficiency, as well as a sense of theatricality and bravura, and quickly drew the attention of the critics. “He is the wonder of Chelsea,” exclaimed the Irish critic George Moore in 1906. [2]

In 1910 John traveled to Martigues, in Provence, France, where he lived through 1928 and developed his Post-Impressionist style in a series of landscape and figure compositions. But portraits comprised the bulk of his paid work, and his list of esteemed sitters included the poet Dylan Thomas and the British army officer T. E. Lawrence. He was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1921 and a full Member in 1928, the same year he sold his house in Provence and returned to London. Though his style eventually became outdated, he maintained his reputation as one of Britain’s leading artists until his death in 1961.

[1] See Gwen and Augustus John, David Fraser Jenkins and Chris Stephens, eds., exh. cat. (London: Tate Publishing, 2004).

[2] Michael Holroyd, Augustus John (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996), 332.

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