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
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