‘Men must play, women must weep’
It was in the mid-1890s that the painter Augustus John met his future wife at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. Ida was the eldest daughter of a charming, eccentric artist, Jack Nettleship, who drank continuous cocoa (earlier, it had been whisky) and passed much of his time at London Zoo painting what WB Yeats called his “melodramatic lions”. Ada, his wife, dressed from neck to hem in black brocade. She was the more formidable parent and also the family’s breadwinner. She sewed dresses for actresses, and made the beetlewing gown of green silk embroidered with gold that Ellen Terry wore as Lady Macbeth, and in which she was painted by John Singer Sargent.
Ida had been born on January 24 1877, and went to the Slade aged 15. She stayed there some six years, during which she wrote many letters to Augustus John (although none from before 1899 survive) and his sister Gwen, as well as to the Salaman family, who were known collectively as “the nursery” because they behaved much younger than they were. Their father, Myer Salaman, had made a fortune importing ostrich feathers, and several of his 14 surviving children – none of whom needed to work – went to the Slade, and became lifelong friends with Ida. She gave them animal names – Bagheera, Baloo – from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book; she herself was Mowgli. At 19, she found herself engaged to one of the older Salaman siblings, Clement, a barrister.
Clement was a good friend and she liked him. But did she love him? At the beginning of 1897, she broke off the engagement. Her parents helped by arranging for her to paint for some weeks in Florence. Covertly, they also hoped to separate her from Augustus, an unkempt young fellow from Wales who wore earrings, said almost nothing and was not the sort of man they wished her to marry.
Ida, an attractive and romantic girl, enjoyed living in Florence. In a letter to her sister Ethel, she wrote: But soon after she returned, she began seeing Augustus again, and, despite her parents’ opposition and his evident waywardness, she fell in love. In one of his limericks, Augustus wrote: Augustus suggested that they should have a love affair and, when Ida became pregnant, her parents would have no alternative other than to agree – even insist – on their marriage. But Ida thought this immoral. Instead, she agreed to marry him, then tell her parents.
This they did at the start of 1901. Jack Nettleship was philosophical, Ada not at all. “It could have been worse,” Augustus decided. To celebrate, they went to a party with Gwen John and some other artists. Only Augustus was missing, having set off to have a bath. He arrived later wearing a gaudy new check suit to match his earrings.
Over the next few years, Ida had to use all her ingenuity to keep their marriage afloat. The couple soon went up to Liverpool where Augustus had taken a job teaching art at the university. It was here that Ida made one of her most amusing friends, Mary Dowdall. Ida called her “the Rani”, a Hindi word meaning princess or queen, and she prevented Ida’s spirits from sinking. In a letter to her own husband, the Rani notes Augustus’s attraction to women: “sensible” way she was bringing up her children (Ida would have five between 1902 and 1907), letting them squabble and roll around on the carpet, eat what they wanted when they wished, be kissed at any time of the day or night – otherwise not trouble them. In 1903, Ida wrote to the Rani:
Dorelia, later called Dodo, was the fourth of seven beautiful children whose father was a merchant clerk in Camberwell and whose mother belonged to a family of dairy farmers. Dorelia had been working as a secretary by day and in the evening went to the Westminster School of Art. She met Gwen John at a party; both Gwen and Augustus were drawn to her and began working at portraits. Ida, too, could not help liking Dorelia, although she could see what was at stake. “How we married people need to cling and pull together,” Augustus wrote.
Gwen took Dorelia on a steamer to Bordeaux, intending to walk via Toulouse to Rome. Ida wrote to them in 1904: “Your life is romantic – mine a pigstye… [Dorelia] mustn’t grow any prettier or she will burst.” To the Rani, Ida wrote: “Men must play & women must weep.”
Not willing to risk pulling apart Ida’s marriage, Dorelia tried to escape from the Johns’ lives, even
Ida John’s letters reveal how it felt to be the squeezed middle in a notorious ménage à trois, says Michael Holroyd
Squeeze box: Augustus John by the Rani