Augustus John 1878-1961


Private Collection, acquired in the 1940s

Private Collection, by descent

In the nineteen-twenties, Augustus John became the premier portraitist of British society figures, taking up the mantle of John Singer Sargent. Amongst his most iconic portraits are Colonel T. E. Lawrence (1919, Tate Collection), Madame Suggia (1920-23, Tate Collection) and Lady Ottoline Morrell (1919, National Portrait Gallery). By the time of his death in 1961, and with the publication of two autobiographies, John’s reputation was in steady decline, but his early work ranks amongst the most significant contributions to twentieth-century British art. He was elected a Royal Academician in 1928, awarded the Order of Merit in 1942, served as a Trustee of the Tate Gallery from 1933 to 1941, and was President of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters from 1948 until 1953. More recently, Augustus John and Gwen John were the subject of a major exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 2004 which showed their work side by side.

Even before leaving the Slade School of Art where he studied, John was renowned for his draughtsmanship and in his final year he won the Slade Prize. The critic John Rothenstein wrote of John in 1944, ‘First and foremost John is a draughtsman and his painting is most masterly when it approximates most closely to drawing. The majority of his best paintings have the strong contours and the clearly defined forms which belong to drawing.’ As is apparent in this Portrait of Edith Lees, this draughtsmanship meant extreme delicacy of touch with the pencil and a restrained economy of line. There is an evident softness of touch here which suggests the lightest application of graphite. John’s refined sense of tonal modelling and the fall of hair in this drawing was achieved with by gradations of shading and the lightest smudging in the hair. Portrait of Edith Lees is an fine example of John’s sympathetic and evocative portrait drawings.

The sitter for this portrait is Edith, or ‘Lyndra’ Lees, the wife of the Australian artist Derwent Lees, a close friend of Augustus John. Rebecca John has written that ‘at least eleven portrait drawings of this model were executed from varying angles, using controlled diagonal shading, running downwards from right to left.’ She continues, ‘In his vivid oil paintings she usually appears as a big-boned country girl in the landscape settings of Wales or Southern France.’ Edith Lees is handsome rather than beautiful, strong featured yet demure with eyes cast downward. With a prominent jaw and chin, full lips, snub nose, and crimped long bob, she is both distinctive and memorable, a classic and yet idiosyncratic model of John’s.

We are grateful to Rebecca John for her assistance in identifying the sitter as Edith Lees.