In Praise of the New 

Louise Pfanner shares her latest discoveries.

September 2017

Gleebooks Bookshop - Wednesday, September 06, 2017

It’s my opinion that being artistic is not a licence for bad behaviour, and the more I read about some artists I like, the less I like them. Augustus John was much lauded in his day, and was indeed a great portrait painter and draughtsman, but he wreaked havoc along the way, leaving a trail of broken hearts and many babies. His first wife, Ida Nettleship, was the daughter of a well known animal painter, John Nettleship, and an artist in her own right. Much to her parents’ chagrin she married Augustus John, and had five sons in quick succession, sadly dying after the birth of the last one. In the meantime her husband had brought a third person into the marriage—Dorelia, an artist’s model and friend of his sister Gwen. The letters in The Good Bohemian: The Letters of Ida John, edited by Michael Holroyd and Rebecca John, describe Ida’s brief life far more vividly than any biography. Obviously they were never meant for publication, and they were letters written over several years, mainly to her friends, her sisters and her mother. Ida had no time for painting, having been so quickly plunged into Bohemian domesticity—but she was a wonderful writer, and she maintained a really absorbing interest in making clothes (her mother having been a very fine dressmaker). Augustus John was in fact very successful early on in his career, and it’s fascinating to read about the financial transactions between the artist and the art buyers. It’s also rather hard to see the appeal of the artist from this distance. This book has been really well edited, with helpful asides by the editors.

Gwen
, by Goldie Goldbloom, is a novel based on the life of Augustus John’s sister, Gwendolyn Mary John. The facts of her life are woven through this story, which is written in roughly three parts. Gwen John studied at the Slade with Ida Nettleship, and was a very fine artist also. She went to Paris and modelled for, and studied with Rodin, and continued to paint throughout her life, while not exhibiting after 1926, (she died in 1939). Her reputation has grown since her death, but in her life, her career was greatly overshadowed by her brother. Gwen is a work of imagination, it has a dreamlike quality, and it’s quite hard to sort fact from fiction. Gwen did fall in love with Dorelia, just as her brother had done, and the two of them walked across France, intending to reach Rome. But it seems most unlikely that they walked barefooted, stealing clothes from clotheslines en route as they do in Goldbloom’s retelling. Somehow, Dorelia peels off, and Gwen is in Paris, modelling for Rodin, with whom she falls in love with. Again, it’s really hard to see the attraction of the artist, and the torrid interludes between them both seem unlikely and really unseemly. Also, whether Gwen John and her brother had the deeply incestuous relationship that the author describes in detail, is questionable—and it adds to the tiresomely salacious tone of this book. Rodin describes Gwen as ‘anorexic’ as a way of explaining some of her behaviour—she suffers delusions and hallucinations, and she foresees the Holocaust of WW2 by hallucinating Jewish children whom she is convinced are real. Gwen John was a great artist, and she led a truly interesting life, it’s a shame that this books indulges so much in its more prurient aspects. Louise

 
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