Augustus John 1878-1961


The Collection of Viscount Cowdray
The shoreline depicted here is almost certainly the Étang de Berre on the Provence coast. Dorelia McNeill joined John there in early 1910 and they rented the nearby Villa St Anne in Martigues, retaining the property for eighteen years afterwards and returning there frequently. While there, John often used his family as models and in particular Dorelia. He would compose her in a contemplative relationship with the landscape, and here she is depicted sitting before the sweep of the bay, intent on the piece of blue material in her lap. A similar example to this is David and Dorelia in Normandy (1908, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge), painted two years earlier. The John family adopted a faux-gypsy lifestyle, travelling and dressing themselves in colourful, loose-fitting clothes, and here Dorelia is perhaps making or mending new clothes for John’s several children.

The painting is worked with short, loose brushstrokes. John had achieved a maturity in his manner of painting by the time he arrived in Provence, and the coastal landscape of southern France prompted him to produce increasingly vivid, loosely-handled surface effects. In handling the water of the sea, John has brushed in a darker blue over which he has laid several strokes of a brighter tone, creating a relief effect where the upper applications of paint become pronounced. A comparable effect was achieved in Port de Bouc (1910, Southampton City Art Gallery), for example. The vibrant colours, most notably in the violet and grey sky, were later adopted and developed by John’s friend and contemporary James Dickson Innes.

An exhibition of John's Provence landscape and figure paintings was held at the Chenil Galleries, London, in November and December of 1910. Provençal Studies and Other Works by Aug. E. John included a number of subjects which are similar to this work - Girl in a Blue Skirt (no. 19) and Woman Reading (no. 23), for example. This work was plausibly included in the exhibition, and it evidently adheres with a work described as 'The woman by the sea' (no. 42). The exhibition marked the emergence of an exciting, fresh, plein-air style of panel painting, and Lady on Clifftop is a good example of John's output from this time.