Painter’s trin­ity

The let­ters of Au­gus­tus John’s wife, Ida, re­veal the highs and lows of bo­hemian liv­ing at the turn of the 20th cen­tury, says Matthew Den­ni­son

Country Life Every Week - - Books -

Let­ters The Good Bo­hemian Edited by Re­becca John and Michael Hol­royd (Blooms­bury, £25)

THOSE Johns, you know, have a hold that never ceases—and the ache is al­ways there in place of them when ab­sent,’ a 21-year-old Ida Net­tle­ship wrote about sib­lings au­gus­tus and Gwen John. Her own par­tic­u­lar ‘ache’ was for au­gus­tus, whom she called Gus or Gussie. she mar­ried the painter three years later, days short of her 24th birth­day. Her love for him was won­der­ing, adu­la­tory and, in­ter­mit­tently, con­flicted. and she died af­ter only six years, giv­ing birth to the fifth of au­gus­tus’s sons, in a hospi­tal in Paris, a vic­tim of puer­peral fever and peri­toni­tis.

It was not the mar­riage Ida’s par­ents had planned for the el­dest of their three daugh­ters. Her mother was de­ter­minedly re­spectable. De­spite early as­so­ci­a­tions with pre-raphaelitism, her painter fa­ther, John triv­ett Net­tle­ship, had set­tled into co­coa-drink­ing semi­in­va­lidism; his lugubri­ous later can­vases of po­lar bears and big cats strug­gled to find buy­ers.

Like her fa­ther, Ida as­pired to be an artist and spent six years at the slade, but her mar­riage to the best-known artist of her gen­er­a­tion robbed her of ev­ery op­por­tu­nity to paint. she spent vir­tu­ally the whole of her short mar­riage preg­nant: with dis­ap­point­ment, she came to re­fer to her­self as no more than ‘a Belly’.

au­gus­tus’s de­tach­ment as a fa­ther mir­rored his faith­less­ness as a hus­band. In her let­ters, a tol­er­ant and lov­ing Ida used a se­ries of animal images to de­pict his wild­ness and free­dom, ap­par­ently with­out cen­sure.

Edited by Ida’s grand­daugh­ter Re­becca John and au­gus­tus’s bi­og­ra­pher Michael Hol­royd, the present col­lec­tion of let­ters spans a 15-year pe­riod. It chron­i­cles Ida’s artis­tic train­ing in Lon­don, Florence and Paris and her un­con­ven­tional mar­riage, which, with the ad­vent of Dore­lia Mcneill in the Johns’ lives, be­came a mé­nage a trois that scan­dalised Ed­war­dian Lon­don.

al­though the voice that emerges from these let­ters is dis­tinc­tive, Ida’s protest—against the ties of do­mes­tic­ity and up­heaval of un­wanted preg­nan­cies—is also that of gen­er­a­tions of women whose tal­ents and am­bi­tions were for­feit to gen­der-based ex­pec­ta­tions. Ida’s as­ser­tion that her hap­pi­ness was ‘hin­dered’ by ‘the hearth & ser­vants & all the rest of it’—an image of con­ven­tional do­mes­tic­ity—was sin­cere and truth­ful, but she would find the un­con­ven­tional life au­gus­tus de­manded of her ev­ery bit as chal­leng­ing. With care­ful restraint, she wrote: ‘I think he’s a mean & child­ish crea­ture be­sides be­ing the fine old chap he is.’

With and with­out her hus­band, some­times along­side his mis­tress

Dore­lia, some­times with­out Dore­lia, Ida moved be­tween homes in Es­sex, Paris and, fa­mously, a car­a­van in the West Coun­try. set against the rosi­ness of this pi­caresque re­bel­lion is the fail­ure of ei­ther of her sis­ters to marry: both be­lieved the Johns’ icon­o­clasm had ru­ined their chances of find­ing re­spectable hus­bands.

‘I think to live with a girl­friend and have lovers would be al­most per­fect,’ Ida wrote early in her mar­riage, a state­ment that, iron­i­cally, comes closer to de­scrib­ing the sit­u­a­tion achieved by au­gus­tus. Ida ad­mit­ted to Dore­lia her feel­ings of love and ha­tred to­wards her; to pre­serve even a sem­blance of her mar­riage, she nev­er­the­less begged Dore­lia to yield to au­gus­tus’s de­mands.

Dore­lia is a shad­owy pres­ence in her ri­val’s let­ters: au­gus­tus’s self­ish­ness ap­pears ex­treme if in­ad­ver­tent. Ida un­der­stood her role in their shared mé­nage as pla­ca­tory. In her let­ters, it is she who sus­tains the Johns’ ir­reg­u­lar ar­range­ment and, in­evitably, she who suf­fers most as a re­sult. ‘My only hap­pi­ness,’ she wrote of au­gus­tus, ‘is for him to be happy and com­plete.’

and so, from this ex­per­i­men­tal ver­sion of mar­riage, emerged an out­come wholly con­ven­tional in its time: a wife’s hap­pi­ness sac­ri­ficed to her hus­band’s less mod­er­ate de­sires.

‘Au­gus­tus’s self­ish­ness ap­pears ex­treme if in­ad­ver­tent

A pic­ture of the Net­tle­ship fam­ily, with Ida sit­ting in the cen­tre

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