out-drink, out-party and out-flirt

Augustus John was well known not only for his artistic talents but also for his unusual living arrangements with two women.


“In the summer of 1897 he suffered a severe accident hitting his head on a rock whilst diving into the sea, this seemingly resulted in a radical change in character – later leading to the myth that he had dived into the sea, hit his head on a rock and emerged from the water a genius.

image found here

It was at the Slade that Augustus met and fell in love with Ida Nettleship. Sensuously beautiful she had almond eyes, a mass of dark hair and full lips. In 1901, Augustus eloped with her and they were married.

image found here

Marriage did not stop John’s womanising – he met and fell hopelessly in love with Dorothy McNeil, known as Dorelia or later affectionately as Dodo. Ida liked Dorelia enormously and a tumultuous ménage-a-trois was formed.


For a time this was successful; Dorelia bore him two children and Ida gave birth to five but sadly died at the age of 30 from puerperal fever. Then in August 1911, John and Dorelia decided to rent Alderney Manor, a strange fortified pink bungalow built by an eccentric Frenchman in 60 acres of woodland.


Their children ran wild over the heathland and bathed naked in the pond. The communal chaos was presided over by Dorelia in pre-Raphaelite robes looking as if she was constantly about to pose for a portrait. Over the years they acquired all the trappings of a back to the land community; cows, a breeding herd of saddleback pigs, various donkeys, ponies, carthorses, miscellaneous cats & dogs, 12 hives of bees that stung everyone, a dovecote from which all the doves flew away and a ‘biteful’ monkey.


Communal living did nothing to cramp John’s style – the affairs continued, almost too numerous to mention – with Lady Ottoline Morrell, Mrs Strindberg, the actress Eileen Hawthorne & Mrs Fleming, Ian Fleming’s mother, (a liaison which resulted in a daughter, Amaryllis, later an accomplished cellist.) John never seemed to deny any of his wayward offspring – taking some under his communal wing, paying maintenance to support others. Though the claim that he had fathered some 100 illegitimate offspring is probably an exaggeration – it being fashionable at one time to claim to have had a child with him.


The years at Alderney were the peak of John’s artistic career. Everyone who was anyone seemingly wanted to have their portrait painted by the erstwhile King of Bohemia. A controversial portrait of Lord Leverhulme, the founder of Port Sunlight, was returned to John minus its head, the soap millionaire having been offended by the artist’s depiction of him. John exhibited the remaining section of the portrait with the title ‘Lord Leverhulme’s Watchchain’. In 1954 the two sections were joined together again. You can see the join line quite distinctly on the painting today.


John and Dorelia lived out the last years of their lives at Fryern, interspersed with occasional trips abroad or up to London – where John would proceed, even into his eighties, to out-drink, out-party and out-flirt his considerably younger companions.

Augustus John by Cecil Beaton found here

Published in: on July 8, 2010 at 8:26 am  Comments (46)  
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  1. Have you read The Children’s Book by AS BYatt – I don’t think she was thinking specifically about Augustus John (more about the rather horrid Eric Gill probably) but it is set in the same kind of milieu as the John household inhabited. I really liked it.

    • The only thing I know about Eric Gill is that he had sexual experience with a dog. It’s turned me off wanting to know any more about his artwork

    • Children’s Book is wonderful – stunningly written, compelling and some of my bookish friends have said “life-changing”. I’m going with ‘bloody brilliant’!

  2. Actually, reading your post more carefully, I think Byatt must have had Augustus John in mind for one of the characters

    • I’ve only read one Byatt – The Matisse Stories. At the moment I’m heavily into non fiction, I don’t read many novels. My last attempt was the ghastly Tom Jones by Henry Fielding. I was seriously tempted to toss that book into the ocean. 900 pages of twaddle.

      • I got halfway through Tom Jones. It’s surprisingly camp for its day, and somewhat accurately heavy on the twaddle.

      • Using your posts as evidence, I would have to say the non-fiction you read is three times as exciting as most fiction

  3. Every now and again, just for a brief second, I think, “She’s funnin us and making all this stuff up.” But then I think, “Naw, ya can’t make this stuff up.”

    • Truth is stranger than fiction

  4. It’s all I can do to remember the names and birthdays of eleven children…. but 100??!!

    • Are you including great grandchildren, nieces and nephews? I’m pretty sure you don’t have eleven children….

      • Well alright….they SEEM like eleven!

      • I think most people can’t remember their spouses name. That’s why they have so many pet names.

  5. “Out-drink, out-party and out-flirt”? i take that as a personal challenge! Bring it, Augustus! Yeah, i know you’re dead, but if you were a real playa, that wouldn’t get in your way! It’s ON!

    • No one outflirts daisyfae 🙂

      • Too right, I know when I’m licked (you can tell by my smile!)

        Go get ’em Daisy!

        The King

    • You stole my comment! I take it as a personal challenge to be outdrinking, outflirting, and outpartying my peers when I am in my eighties.

      • Between the two of us, that dead guy doesn’t stand a chance, does he! Teamwork!

  6. I believe it became unfashionable to have women claim to have your illegitimate children right after child support payments were invented.

  7. Somehow this post brings to mind Hector Berlioz. Another participant in a tumultuous menage a trois.

  8. “it being fashionable at one time to claim to have had a child with him.”

    That’s got to be some kind of achievement there.
    He should have handed out medals or something.

    • I think he was handing out sperm

  9. He sure made himself famous for what he did…

  10. I wonder if an outwardly elderly person could take up being an artistic genius – with all the perks, of course.

    • I’m asking for a friend, naturally.

      • Which friend? Not daddyp?

  11. I would love to be regarded as the Bohemian King!

    What is that primate doing to my cat? And that is my cat.

  12. Pretty wild stuff there, they lived such an interesting life. I’ll have to go look for the A.S. Byatt book, haven’t read that one!

  13. My mother-in-law knew Augustus and he did a little sketch on a serviette for her ……. unfortunately it didn’t turn up when we cleared out her house after she died ……..

    • Great story daddyp….. hope someone didn’t wipe their chocolatey hands on it

  14. Where do I sign up to become a fashionable artist?

    • I thought you already were one!

  15. Gah If only I had his staying power in all respects at the tender age of 47, let alone when I’m 80!

  16. dear god. I’m exhausted at the thought. I need a nap.

  17. Nettleship… not a name you come across everyday….

    Just love Augustus John’s work…

  18. Always good to hear of a man who’s a rascal well into his 80s!

    • Yes it gives the rest of us hope doesn’t it Don?

  19. i keep hitting my head to attempt to be a genius… no luck so far. but doing well on the flirting, drinking, and partying. improvements to be made, but damn fine progress.

  20. That is one sexy monkey!

  21. I know some crazy artists, and one of them is a major philanderer, but none of them even comes close to that dude. Whew, what a fascinating history.

  22. Ahh the life of a typical turn of the century artist

  23. Poor Ida, dying too soon. I wonder about the circumstances surrounding her death and whether they took good enough care of her, but that is something I’ll never find out.

    So thought provoking, NurseM–thanks again :-)).

  24. I wonder what it was like being a child in his household(s). It could have been fascinating and delightful, it could have been awful. Different anyway.

  25. This makes me want to “hit my head on a rock and emerge from the water a genius.” I fell into a duck pond once, and my mom had to do the Heimlich. But I don’t have hordes of lovers and children, so apparently duck ponds do not have the same effect. Save yourself the trouble of trying.

  26. Would love for some of our resident dumb asses to fall into the water and come out brilliant. It would make our world a much better place… sigh. Love the photo of the guy in the old scuba “helmet.” A local tourism bureau is using something similar in a tv ad to lure people to the beaches.

  27. Quite interesting read. I like that you’ve tagged this post with ‘careers advice.’

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