‘Men must play, women must weep’

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - Books -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.