Augustus John, the third of the four children of Edwin William John (1847–1938), and his wife, Augusta Smith (1848–1884), was born in Tenby on 4th January 1878. His father was a solicitor and her mother, an amateur artist. His sister, Gwen John, had been born in 1876. His mother died of rheumatic gout when he was only six years old.
Michael Holroyd has argued: "Queen Victoria had gone into perpetual mourning after Prince Albert's death in 1861, and Edwin, who never remarried and who in his late thirties retired from practising as a solicitor, seems to have felt it proper to follow her example within the dark interior of Victoria House. The atmosphere in which his two sons and two daughters grew up was loveless and claustrophobic." Their father had cautioned his children never to go out on market days in case they were captured by the Gypsies. John told his friend, Nina Hamnett: "We are the sort of people our fathers warned us against!"
Augustus John went to the local Greenhill School before being sent to a boarding school in Clifton near Bristol. He also received drawing lessons from a local artist and in 1894 he went to the Slade School of Art. Augustus was taught by Henry Tonks, Philip Wilson Steer and Frederick Brown. Other students at the Slade at the time included William Orpen, Wyndham Lewis. Spencer Gore, Michel Salaman, Edna Waugh, Herbert Barnard Everett, Albert Rothenstein, Ambrose McEvoy, Ursula Tyrwhitt, Ida Nettleship and Gwen Salmond.
After injuring his head after diving into the sea while on holiday in 1895 his personality changed. He grew a beard, dressed as a Bohemian and drank heavily. His painting became more adventurous and his friend, Wyndham Lewis remarked that John had become a "great man of action into whose hands the fairies had placed a paintbrush instead of a sword". Considered to be the most talented artist of his generation, in 1898 John won the Slade Prize with Moses and the Brazen Serpent. He developed a nomadic lifestyle and for a while he lived in a caravan and camped with gypsies.
Augustus John was joined by Gwen John at the Slade School of Art. He later wrote: "It wasn't long before my sister Gwen joined me at the Slade. She wasn't going to be left out of it! We shared rooms together, subsisting, like monkeys, on a diet of fruit and nuts. This was cheap and hygienic. It is true we were sometimes asked out to dinner, when, not being pedants, we waived our rule for the time being."
William Rothenstein took a keen interest in the work of young artists. This included Augustus John who wrote in his autobiography, Chiaroscuro: "Encouraged by Will Rothenstein, I held my first show at the newly established Carfax Gallery, Ryder Street, St. James's... My little show was a success. I made thirty pounds. With this sum in my pocket there was nothing to prevent me joining Will Rothenstein, Orpen and Charles Conder in France. Rothenstein had found a good spot not far from Étretat on the Normandy coast."
John later recalled his time with Charles Conder in France: "Conder was a charming personality. He spoke in an exhausted and muffled voice, which made it difficult sometimes to follow him with intelligence. A lock of brown hair always hung over one malicious blue eye. Though his ordinary gait could be described with some accuracy as a shuffle, given a sufficient incentive he was capable of great speed and endurance."
In 1898 Augustus John, Charles Conder and William Rothenstein went to Paris to visit Oscar Wilde. John later recalled: "I had heard a lot about Oscar, of course, and on meeting him was not in the least disappointed, except in one respect: prison discipline had left one, and apparently only one, mark on him, and that not irremediable: his hair was cut short... We assembled first at the Cafe de la Regence.... The Monarch of the dinner-table seemed none the worse for his recent misadventures and showed no sign of bitterness, resentment or remorse. Surrounded by devout adherents, he repaid their hospitality by an easy flow of practised wit and wisdom, by which he seemed to amuse himself as much as anybody. The obligation of continual applause I, for one, found irksome. Never, I thought, had the face of praise looked more foolish."
Augustus John was the subject of his painting, The Dolls House (1900). He later wrote: "It was at Vattetot that William Rothenstein painted The Doll’s House for which Alice Rothenstein and I posed. This is a regular problem picture. I am portrayed standing at the foot of a staircase upon which Alice has un accountably seated herself. I appear to be ready for the road, for I am carrying a mackintosh on my arm and am shod and hatted. But Alice seems to hesitate. Can she have changed her mind at the last moment? But what could have been her intention? Perhaps the weather had changed for the worse and made a promenade inadvisable: but we shall never know. The picture will remain a perpetual enigma, to disturb, fascinate or repel".
On 24th January 1901 Augustus John married Ida Nettleship (1877–1907). For the first eighteen months of their marriage they lived in Liverpool, where John had taken a post teaching at a local art school. In 1902 the couple had their first son, David Anthony Nettleship. He also joined the New English Art Club.
In March 1903 Augustus John and Gwen John had a joint exhibition at Carfax & Company. However, she worked very slowly and contributed only three pictures to her brother's forty-five. Michael Williams has argued: "Their relationship was non-competitive and highly affectionate. Although critical of Gwen’s evident unconcern about her health, Augustus was foremost in appreciating her art. What his own work owed in technical mastery, he felt that Gwen’s pictures more than compensated in interior feeling and expressiveness."
Later that year Augustus John founded, with William Orpen as co-principal, the Chelsea Art School in Rossetti Mansions. He also became involved with Dorelia McNeill. According to Michael Holroyd: "She became his femme inspiratrice and the subject of many of his best-known pictures... Few people seeing this emphatic and unbuttoned model, whose enigmatic smile was likened by critics to that of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, would have guessed that she was a simple person of humble origins."
Augustus continued to live with Ida Nettleship and she gave birth to Casper (1903), Robin (1904), Edwin (1905), and Henry (1907). With Dorelia he had Pyramus (1905) and Romilly (1906). Ida died in 1907 from puerperal fever. Later, Dorelia gave birth to another son, Vivien. In 1911 the family moved in with Henry Lamb at Alderney Manor near Poole.
On the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, John was the best-known artist in Britain. His friendship with Lord Beaverbrook enabled him to obtain a commission in the Canadian Army and was given permission to paint what he liked on the Western Front. He was also allowed to keep his facial hair and therefore became the only officer in the Allied forces, except for King George V, to have a beard. After two months in France he was sent home in disgrace after taking part in a brawl.
Lord Beaverbrook, whose intervention saved John from a court-martial, sent him back to France but is only known to have completed one painting, Fraternity. John also attended the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919 where he painted the portraits of several delegates. However, the commissioned group portrait of the main figures at the conference was never finished.
By the 1920s John was Britain's leading portrait painter. Those who sat for him included Thomas Hardy, George Bernard Shaw, Ottoline Morrell, T. E. Lawrence, Jacob Epstein, Wyndham Lewis, W. B. Yeats, William Nicholson, and Dylan Thomas. However, one critic has claimed that "the painterly brilliance of his early work degenerated into flashiness and bombast, and the second half of his long career added little to his achievement."
His biographer, Michael Holroyd, has argued: "From the late 1920s onwards John's talent went into a decline which, despite a number of journeys he made through Europe, Jamaica, and the United States seeking to revive it, was accelerated by his heavy drinking. The rebel artist had now moved from the roadside into London's West End where his work was irregularly exhibited from 1929 to 1961 at Dudley Tooth's gallery in Bruton Street." Anthony Blunt has claimed: "Everyone is agreed on the fact that Augustus John was born with a quite exceptional talent - some even use the word genius and almost everyone is agreed that he has in some way wasted it".
In later life, John wrote two volumes of autobiography, Chiaroscuro and Finishing Touches. He also took an interest in politics as he got older and as a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, took part in a demonstration on 17th September 1961. Aged 83, he had been seriously ill but was determined to join the other protesters in Trafalgar Square.