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Augustus John

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Augustus John

by Sir William Orpen
oil on canvas, exhibited 1900
39 in. x 37 in. (991 mm x 940 mm)
Given by the Art Fund, 1962
Primary Collection
NPG 4252

Sitterback to top

  • Augustus Edwin John (1878-1961), Painter. Sitter in 106 portraits, Artist associated with 33 portraits.

Artistback to top

  • Sir William Orpen (1878-1931), Painter, Royal Academician. Artist associated with 29 portraits, Sitter in 28 portraits.

This portraitback to top

Orpen and John met while studying at the Slade and became constant companions. Fifty years later John criticised this portrait for not conveying 'the shy, dreamy and reticent character of its model'. It is in fact one of Orpen's finest early portraits of a young artist whose behaviour was often far from 'reticent'.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Audio Guide
  • Bakewell, Michael, Character Sketches: Fitzrovia: London's Bohemia, 1999, p. 18
  • Funnell, Peter (introduction); Marsh, Jan, A Guide to Victorian and Edwardian Portraits, 2011, p. 18 Read entry

    Augustus John (1878-1961) was a leading figure of the avant-garde in the Edwardian period. A flamboyant personality, who cultivated a strong bohemian image for himself, John’s later work never quite fulfilled his early promise. Orpen and John met while studying at the Slade School of Art and became constant companions. Fifty years later, John criticised this portrait for not conveying ‘the shy, dreamy and reticent character of its model’. It is in fact one of Orpen’s finest early portraits, depicting a young artist whose behaviour was often far from ‘reticent’.

  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 338
  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 177 Read entry

    Augustus John first met William Orpen (1878–1931) when they were both students at the Slade School of Fine Art and they became constant companions. In 1903 John founded the Chelsea Art School with Orpen as its co-principal. This was a period of great success for John, who became a leading figure of the avant-garde. He was elected to the New English Art Club and adopted a bohemian lifestyle, living between Paris and London. However, he never quite fulfilled his early artistic promise and from the 1920s his career went into decline.

    John disparaged this portrait fifty years after it was made in Finishing Touches (the posthumous volume of his autobiography, 1964) for not conveying ‘the shy, dreamy and reticent character of its model’. He told how, ‘having selected Whistler’s portrait of “Carlyle” for imitation, he [Orpen] posed me seated in profile against the wall, attired in a cast-off top-coat provided by Charles Conder. Unfortunately the result of his industry revealed no trace of the subtlety and distinction present in his exemplar.’ Despite John’s reservations, it is one of Orpen’s greatest early works and captures the bohemian elegance of the sitter as a young artist at the height of his powers.

Events of 1900back to top

Current affairs

The Conservatives return to power, after the Prime Minister Lord Salisbury calls a general election, known as the 'Khaki election', on the back of huge jingoistic support for the Boer War.
The Labour Representation Committee (LRC) is founded from a coalition of socialist groups; they win two seats in the 1900 election and Ramsay Macdonald is appointed secretary. The Labour politician Keir Hardie is also returned to Parliament for Merthyr Tydfilin Wales.

Art and science

German physicist Max Planck proposes the concept of the quantum theory. Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams is published. In the text, Freud outlines his theory of dream analysis, crucial to the study of the unconscious, and introduces key concepts in psychoanalysis, such as the Ego.
The Paris International Exhibition, attended by more than 50 million people and including over 76,000 exhibitors, marks the heyday of Art Nouveau.


In China the Boxer rebellion takes place. The Boxers were anti-imperialist and against foreign influence in trade, religion, politics and technology in the final years of the Manchu rule. The Boxers invade Beijing, killing 230 foreigners and Chinese Christians. The rebellion is suppressed by a multinational coalition of 20,000 troops, with China being forced to pay large war reparations, contributing to growing nationalist resentment against the Qing dynasty.

Tell us more back to top

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Peter Dew

06 May 2020, 15:50

You missed an opportunity to compare it with Whistler's Mother.

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