Born in Tenby (seen above at sunrise), Pembrokeshire, John was the younger son and third of four children. His father was Edwin William John, a Welsh solicitor; his mother, Augusta Smith from a long line of Sussex master plumbers, died young when he was six, but not before inculcating a love of drawing in both Augustus and his older sister Gwen.
In 1897, John hit submerged rocks diving into the sea at Tenby, suffering a serious head injury; the lengthy convalescence that followed seems to have stimulated his adventurous spirit and accelerated his artistic growth.
He was, throughout his life, particularly interested in the Romani people (whom he referred to as “Gypsies”), and sought them out on his frequent travels around the United Kingdom and Europe.
From Into Gypsydom: Augustus John’s Provence (2013), by Francesca Cuojati:
“…Biographer Michael Holroyd maintains that John’s romance with Gypsies went back to his childhood in Wales. As a reaction to the suffocating Edwardian education imposed by his family, the “mutinous pupil” (Holroyd 1997, 19) felt a kinship with the gypsies which “arose not just from the fact that [his father] disapproved of them but from his having warned his son they might capture him and bring him up as one of their own…At home he felt an outcast, and at school it was with the outcast he grew most sympathetic” (Holroyd 1997, 26). It was while in Liverpool, working as art instructor at the School of Art in 1901, that John made friends with John Sampson, librarian of the local University College and self-taught linguist who would later publish a scholarly classic, The Dialect of the Gypsies of Wales (1926). The sense of a special friendship mixed with ethnographic fervour, twinned with the conviction of accessing an utterly mysterious realm, permeate John’s recollections of that period
John’s involvement with the Gypsies soon came to shape his family and private life as well. Married in 1900 to Ida Nettleship, a Slade School student, around 1903 John had started a relationship with Dorothy McNeill, a typist from Camberwell whose enigmatic personality and unique taste for dressing ‘artistically’ ignited his imagination to the point that he began fantasizing she had gypsy origins and decided to change her name into that of Dorelia. He was soon teaching her Romany and entertaining an intense correspondence in the language with her. The ensuing ménage à trois, and the numerous children John had from both Ida and Dorelia thus turned the family into a real clan or tribe; and since the Gypsies usually did not want to sit for him or, if they did, he complained that “they immediately changed expression and look less intelligent” (Holroyd 1997, 310), he painted his family instead…”
Juliet Nicolson: The Perfect Summer, 1911 (2006) Chapter 10: Early September:
“…Henry Tonks had been a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons and through his work had become fascinated with drawing the bodies both alive and dead that came his way, and eventually a highly accomplished teacher of figurative portraiture. While he tolerated the petrified Diana (Manners), not all Slade students were allowed to flourish in his teaching studio. One look at Augustus John’s landlady Mrs Everett, who arrived to enrol carrying a bag that contained a Bible, a loaf of bread, a Spanish dagger, a spirit lamp and a saucepan was enough for him to banish her at once to the cellar, where she remained for years, becoming the doyenne of the Slade Skeleton Room. But Tonks was a marvellous teacher and Augustus John, also subjected on occasion to his withering scorn, had been among those to benefit from his tutelage…”
Sarah Watling: Noble Savages (2019):
“…Eminent men like Henry James were impressed by (Rupert Brooke), and when the bohemian painter Augustus John brought his (literal) caravan of wives and children to camp at Grantchester that summer, Rupert fitted in easily with them as well…
…Rupert, in Grantchester, was their epicentre. Blond, precocious, funny and talented; he gave them the sense that they were part of something special. Something Virginia Stephen, an aspiring novelist who visited him there in 1911, was perhaps trying to capture when she dubbed them, half-mockingly, the “Neo-Pagans”.
There was no specific Neo-Pagan creed. It was more a way of life, or rather a way of leisure time, influenced nevertheless by Fabianism and the Arcadian philosophies of Edward Carpenter…”