Painted Women

Augustus John by Michael Holroyd

My current reading: Augustus John by Michael Holroyd published 1974

Immersed in research for my second novel, I stumbled upon the painter, Augustus John. He was an interesting type and no mistake but it is his women who truly fascinate. Upon reading descriptions of them, how they spoke and looked and thought, I sought out their portraits. Style mavens with names like Dorelia, Ida (surname Nettleship, no less), Alick, Euphemia, Estella, Arabella, Guilhermina, Ottoline, Clarissa, Caitlin, Amaryllis, Iris, formed a pageant of poetically monikered muses that fuelled his art. They would fuel my sketches too if I had a collection to design. Instead they will fuel my fiction.

Marchesa Casati

Marchesa Casati by Augustus John

Known for “a compelling stare when he looked at a woman,” Augustus John’s quest for the next enigmatic face was a compulsion he made no apologies for. It was a congenital weakness. A coquettish voice emanating from a plumply pretty face sustained his imagination at least for the duration of a portrait–as long as the coquettish voice knew to silence itself. He didn’t like talkative women.

Mistresses and wives overlapped in the same household. Sometimes his women shacked up with each other when the mystery had faded for him and a new intimacy had bloomed between them. He needed to consummate every passion for it to be meaningful to his work. To that end he would send his chosen one heartfelt letters, chase her to Paris, beseech and promise until she succumbed. They always succumbed. He was a roguish long-haired six-footer wearing dramatic Victorian coats and sporting an untamed beard.

Augustus John by William Orpen

Augustus John by William Orpen

Children were conceived at almost the same rate as his masterpieces, but they were given considerably less importance.

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Tallulah Bankhead by Augustus John

Before he ever put brush to canvas, his vision often propelled him to style his muses in costumes. He looked to women for clues to the world and his existence in it. But he didn’t care for intellectual women. Although some of the letters written by Ida, his simple, long-suffering first wife, to her friend are the loveliest to read:

“You know I was very near the laudanum bottle–somehow it seemed the next thing. Like when you’re tired, you see an armchair and sit down on it. Now you ‘know all’, I feel a sort of support–it is funny. Others know, but no one has given me the support in the right place as you have. One held up an arm, another a leg, one told me I wasn’t tired and there was nothing the matter…With you I have something to sit on!”

When the tension bound up in the chase had dissipated, Augustus John languished. New women helped stave off the constant threat of melancholia.

Determinedly disreputable, wooing his public in gypsy dialect, thirsty for the freedom he saw in Romany travelers, he rejected conventional life and became Britain’s most fashionable portrait painter of the 1920s.

From Vivian Leigh to the Marchesa Casati, here are a selection of his women. Inspiring, aren’t they?augustus-john-vivien-leigh-sketch-for-1376181739_b f973fbd9b9031289428b2d688f181e54 f3ab2361a0a3698a4ab2197766e863c8 c57c6d2f038f7035c0d8431a7a3bc999 c34cb5fe3b8fa35e9c8eee40845df17b bf371aa6228510a29cf0c18fac1bd4ff ab58018a5f73fbb57eeee25d37f795e3 a69d480c4ce79eb96ebbfb4654300db1 8809aed474979493feeb8440a25af4fd 690d8072664767b74325e57eda94bfea 488fb038c9f6b47eba7875cd4e48b7e5 91ccc6551ffcc850ce748cf17ad2a257 80db6bbfadd67972058e44d5f3fa0999 0039a95224e0ead0659584bf51d07d5a 36bd6014479e9969b0662172da270094 2afad3901da825799e2a4869eb17e123 (c) BRIDGEMAN; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation phd34791 nmwa4910 john-dorelia-in-eastern-dress1 images-1 bd49e243e350594eacee64410fa30b62 37278ebbb2ad633b4410a35f14355fcc 8481cb75b410eef536b6e8201609b391 2013AA52646 486e6190d14248d4a65cce9777b22660 68c11bb541214c01ac87676c965cb4d1 050ca6b905e68e23d62985cb8ea110b1 036a7263223c88a21417ab38dbbb58b5 2e9f90819410892870413f2b4a2c1471 0c89bf33327a03a1e463f876fa30883294af44498790372644169c6cc9e50474

This a photo of him with another great, James Joyce, and his etching of WB Yeats:














My debut novel set in the world of international fashion, featuring more great men and their many-costumed muses, is now available. You can buy Silk for the Feed Dogs here.


  1. He seems to be amazing in mores ways than one. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Love being introduced to new (well, new to me anyway) artists – second novel sounds intriguing 😉

  3. It looked like his style went through a transformation over time. Interesting as I had never heard of him before

    • You’re quite right. Initially he was a copyist of the great masters, then adopted a Gauguin style and settled into his own after that. I placed them higgledy piggledy as I was more intrigued by the faces in the paintings than his progression 🙂 X

  4. They’re incredible. Many of them look similar to me.. Similar nose and mouth – fine, delicate noses and pursed lips. I wonder were his portraits affected by the ideal standard of beauty and this was it? The eyes are amazing too. In some it feels like they’re looking back at you!
    I ordered silk for the feed dogs!! Should have it in the next few days. Can’t wait!! 🙂

  5. You’re a muse hidden away in the Irish countryside, Olivia! I’m sure as he became more fashionable he did indeed represent the beauty ideal of the time.There is a decadence to his later paintings that I really like.

    Oooooh, I hope you enjoy it :-)xo

  6. Reblogged this on Robin of Rockridge's Blog and commented:
    I found Jackie Mallon’s novel SILK FOR THE FEED DOGS to be an amusing, modern read. As a person who has also been a sewer since I was a child, I enjoyed the foray into the world of fashion and fabric as we take another view of life. I highly recommend you read it.
    I hope you enjoy her blog too. It whets my appetite for her next novel.

    • Oh my goodness, how lovely. I’m so grateful for the reblog and more importantly for a new Silk reader! Thank you so much, Robin. I appreciate your kind words and am delighted you enjoy reading it.
      I best be getting on with the second one. Enough of all this moving apartment stuff!
      I hope your summer is more productive than mine!

  7. Beautiful! I will remember to keep an eye in case I see one of his ladies hop along the pages of your book! Will it be the Mysterious Marchesa? Or the gorgeous Tallulah?….

  8. Ah, they mysteries that lie beneath… 🙂

  9. Such interesting read on such an alluring man, and truly fabulous portraits. I’m totally intrigued by their serious expressions. Thanks for sharing.

    XOXO Nensi

  10. Wow- thank you for sharing such an amazing montage and education!! Their stares are so mysterious and alluring!

  11. Oooooo….loved this. Those eyes!…..fabulous. Thank you. Your book is on my pile for my dog sitting break in a couple of weeks…..x

  12. Love his feeling for colour.. xxx

  13. Weirdly, I knew the name but had no idea who/what he was. I didn’t know which to admire more – his talent as an artist or a seducer but the attached works force me to act my age and appreciate his obvious skill.

    I always imagined research would be boring but thank you for this pleasant and informative extraction Jackie.

    • You know, the audacity of his seductions make good reading too although it’s not gratuitously revealing. It’s more about how he arranges his family, his sitters, his girlfriends, his friends’ wives all around him like a harem. Nothing mattered but his own needs and his sexual ones were interlaced with his creative ones to form one…
      A type, indeed, Mike.

  14. Definitely a fascinating character. Not sure how likeable he is, but you can’t say he’s not colourful.

  15. Reblogged this on Betimes Books and commented:
    Literature and Art: Jackie Mallon about women who inspired painters.

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