Within the Tate Britain gallery in London, apart from its more popular sibling over the river, the Tate Modern, hangs one of the more celebrated works of the British painter Augustus John. It's not always on display, but when it is, her smile passes judgement over the other paintings in the room, as if defying their ability to capture the passion of life with mere paints and pigments. This is John's Woman Smiling.
Augustus Edwin John
Augustus John was born in the town of Tenby, South West Wales in 1878. He studied art in London between 1894-1899 where he was a quiet and diligent student. However, his painting really began to take off following a diving accident. He grew a beard, began to drink heavily and live a Bohemian lifestyle. His new adventurous style of painting led to him becoming one of the most talented British artists of his generation, winning the Slade Prize in 1898. Following a nomadic period where he lived in a caravan and camped with gypsies he moved in with Henry Lamb and Dorothy (Dorelia) McNeill at Alderney Manor, near Poole. Doreilia was eventually to become his wife and the subject of Woman Smiling.
John's wild streak followed him into the Canadian army during the First World War, where his friendship with Lord Beaverbrook gained him a commission and permission to keep his facial hair, making him the only officer in the Allied forces, aside from King George V, to have a beard. This didn't last long however, as, after two months in France he was sent home following a brawl.
By the 1920s, John was Britain's leading portrait painter, his subjects including: Thomas Hardy, TE Lawrence and George Bernard Shaw. However, some critics claimed that his later work failed to live up to his earlier promise. He died in 1961.
Woman Smiling was painted in 1908-9, shortly after the death of John's first wife. It portrays Dorelia in a vivacious manner, hands on her thighs and half-seated in a covered armchair. Her face portrays a ruddy, gypsy-like quality which must have been familiar to John from his Welsh homeland and his nomadic periods in the countryside. She smiles sensuously towards the viewer, clearly enjoying the earthy passions of life. It's one of many paintings and sketches he made of Dorelia, but here John has clearly captured something of the essence of robust country living, even with the poor tools of oils and canvas.
They say however that a picture paints a thousand words, so, go and see it and make up your own mind! When it is on display, the painting hangs as part of the Public and Private display theme in the Portrait room at the Tate Britain in Millbank (take the tube to Pimlico).