Among the most generously represented artists in the 1913 Armory Show was Augustus John, a British painter about whom, prior to my research for this project, I knew very little. Thirty-eight of his paintings and drawings hung in the New York venue, more than any other artist besides Odilon Redon. The majority of John’s works were lent by the New York attorney and collector John Quinn, who was a friend of the artist and one of his most generous patrons. Quinn had helped to organize the Armory Show, and lent a significant number of his own works to be exhibited.
In 1913 John was already established as a leading Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painter in Europe, and American critics were eager for the opportunity to examine his work firsthand. The archetypal rebel and bohemian artist, Augustus John was born in Wales, worked primarily in England and France, and was celebrated first in London and then internationally for his portraits and expressive figure paintings and drawings.
Perhaps more intriguing than John’s career was his personal life. By 1901 he was teaching art at the University of Liverpool to support his young family. There he befriended John Sampson, a university librarian who sparked John’s interest in the culture and language of 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.
The Way Down to the Sea, the largest and most important of the paintings by John at the Armory Show, may represent a reconstruction of the artist’s family—Ida, who had died in 1907, and Dorelia with one of their children, and perhaps Dorelia’s sister Jessie and another of John’s lovers, Euphemia Lamb, the wife of the painter Henry Lamb. A romantic bohemian, indeed…