Augustus John OM

Lyric Fantasy


Not on display

Augustus John OM 1878–1961
Oil paint and graphite on canvas
Support: 2380 × 4720 mm
Bequeathed by Mrs Reine Pitman 1972

Display caption

This is one of four murals commissioned in 1909 to decorate the hall of the house in Chelsea of Hugh Lane, a private dealer in old master paintings. John designed the composition using his own family and friends as models, including at the right his wife Ida, who had recently died. It was painted from a full size drawing. John then painted out a figure at the centre, and suggested alterations to compensate. Hugh Lane died in 1915, and his paintings were never finished.
Lyric Fantasy was not displayed, nor given its title, until 1940. John devoted his early career to these decorative murals, which he based on drawings and colour sketches.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

Augustus John 1878–1961

T01540 Lyric Fantasy circa 1913–14

Not inscribed.
Oil, pencil, brown monochrome underpainting on canvas, 92 x 185(233.8x470).
Bequeathed by Mrs Reine Pitman 1972.
Coll: Hugo Pitmaen; Mrs Reine Pitman.
Exh: British Painting Since Whistler, National Gallery, 1940 (183) as ‘Decoration: Lyric Fantasy’;r.a. Diploma Gallery 1954 (37); r.a., 1962 (124) as ‘The Blue Lake’.
Lit: John Rothenstein, Augustus John, 1944, pp.15–16, repr. pls.83 and 35; Augustus John, Chiaroscuro, 1952, p. 139.

‘Lyric Fantasy’ is one of three decorative schemes commissioned by Sir Hugh Lane for Lindsay House, Cheyne Walk in 1909, the other two being ‘The Mumpers’ (collections Detroit Institute of Arts) and ‘Forzeed Amore’ (subsequently over-painted as ‘The Flute of Pan’, collection Sir Philip Dunn).

The exact date of beginning work on ‘Lyric Fantasy’ is not certain although clearly the idea behind it had been conceived as early as 1907 as John’s letter to J. Fothergill of this year indicates: ‘I am about to paint a picture which will prove conclusively that the finest decoration can be produced without any direct reference to visual “Nature”—that is it will be as it were a natural growth itself— coming unbidden and self sufficient like any flower and not at all concerned to imitate other flowers. I will dwell on the thoughts of Noah’s Ark as you bid me. I think the idea grand—the construction however is puzzling. I hope in the foregoing I have not suggested to your suspicious mind the blighted notion of a picture “beautiful and meaningless”. All imitative art is a bore!’ (letter in Tate Archive dated 1907 by reference to Fothergill’s translation of E. M. Loewy’s The Rendering Of Nature In Early Greek Art which was published in this year).

It is probable that John did not begin work on ‘Lyric Fantasy’ until the end of 1910, when he writes to Ottoline Morrell (December 1910) that he is ‘determined to get Lane’s pictures done by the Spring or perish’, although some of the ideas for the figures, notably that of Ida on the far right who died in 1907, can be traced back to sketches made before 1907. It was worked and re-worked from 1910–15. There are letters of 1910, 1913 and 1915 in which John refers to work on ‘the Lane paintings’ (information supplied by Michael Holroyd). The collective terms used by John in these letters suggest that he was working on all three works concurrently. In his autobiography Chiaroscuro, John records: ‘In my studio in the King’s Road, Chelsea, I was engaged on some large mural decorations. These had been originally begun in and for the hall of Sir Hugh Lane’s house in Cheyne Walk, but in time I found the continual intrusion of visitors while I was at work more than I could stand, and removed the canvases after a sharp passage with Sir Hugh... A few years later, Lane visited me at 28 Mallord Street where I then resided; the “Blue Lake”, still incomplete, hung on the wall. Lane there and then made a new offer for the picture, which I accepted: we were now friends again: but the war had begun: the “Lusitania” was sunk and Sir Hugh with it.’ (p. 139).

Sir Hugh’s death in 1915 relieved John from the task of having to finish ‘Lyric Fantasy’ although Dr Malcolm Easton suggests that he continued to work upon it in 1915. It was left unfinished in his studio until Hugo Pitman rediscovered it in the spring of 1934 and borrowed it to hang at Odstock on the understanding that John would finish it there. By 1936 when Hugo Pitman moved to 16 Cheyne Walk, he records that John had given up the idea of working on the picture, although there is another version of ‘Lyric Fantasy’ painted over a photograph of the original composition (23 x 45 in., collection National Gallery of Wales) which is thought to have been done in 1945.

No large cartoon or scaled-down preliminary sketch exists for this work. The composition was probably assembled from a series of small oil panel sketches and drawings. There are at least three pencil drawings for the dark-haired child in the belted pinafore: 9½ x 14 in., collection Mrs Miriam Sacher; 15 x 10¿ in., collection Mr Leigh Parry; 12¼ x9¿ in., collection Thomas Agnew & Sons. A pen and ink drawing, 8 x 5 in., in the National Museum of Wales appears to be a study for the three figures on the left of the composition.

Examination of the unfinished surface reveals that John drew directly with pencil on to the canvas and then painted over this. During the course of work on ‘Lyric Fantasy’ radical changes were made to the composition, resulting in the elimination in some cases of entire figures. There is evidence of a girl in a red dress beneath the drummer boy, and although it is impossible to discern what lies beneath the heavily over-painted area between this child and the woman holding a child in the centre, the existence of an oil panel 9 ½x 10½ in. of a boy set within a landscape which corresponds exactly with part of ‘Lyric Fantasy’ suggest that another child was originally included there. Visible pentimenti reveal alternative positioning and movements in the other figures. The woman holding the guitar, who has been identified as Dorelia, originally had her arms raised, as did the boy in the belted pinafore beside her, while the dresses of the woman on the left originally swung out in a greater swirling motion. The numerous feet and legs which show through at the bottom of the canvas suggest animated movement. Beneath the painting as it now stands was a much livelier scene—perhaps a dance motif, although Dr Malcolm Easton suggests that John’s relish for ‘contrapposto’ poses would sufficiently explain the effect. The alterations also show John’s method of ‘natural growth’ as outlined by him in the already quoted letter to Fothergill.

Apart from Ida, the artist’s first wife (right) and Dorelia, the artist’s second wife (with guitar), the identity of the figures is uncertain. Sir Caspar John (letter to the compiler 12 June 1974) noted: ‘the figures to the right of centre have a positive family identity, whilst the figures to the left of centre have little or none.’ In another letter to the compiler (17 June 1974) Sir Caspar John quotes his brother Edwin: ‘The only difficulty of identification among the group of figures is the central skinny, dark-haired female holding the infant Poppet in the centre of the picture—and the dark-haired female on the extreme left apparently dancing with a civilised version of Norah Brownsword. (Norah Brownsword was a family friend who features in one or more of Augustus John’s oil landscapes). The drummer boy I take to be Pyramus… The other three boys are, almost certainly, from left to right, Caspar, Romilly and Edwin.’ Ida was dead and must be looking on at her son, or sons from the spirit world.

The landscape is thought to be Alderney Manor inspired, John and his family having moved there in 1911. The painting’s alternative title ‘The Blue Lake’ could refer to the clay workings at Wareham Heath. There is a Blue Lake at Farvebrook where John constantly painted, although the mountains in the background suggest Wales, especially as the speckling bears resemblance to landscapes painted earlier with J. D. Innes. Sir Caspar John thought the background could be Provence. Augustus John travelled through Provence with John Quinn in 1911.

The part-real setting and the inclusion of members of his own family invites interpretation but no conclusions have been reached regarding the painting’s symbolism. It seems to have affinities with the tropical and classical Golden Age dreams of Gauguin and Puvis de Chavannes. In ‘I Speak For Myself’ (The Listener, 22 September 1949) Augustus John wrote: ‘the artist... is always an outsider, shunning the crowd, wandering off the beaten track… Perhaps in a dream he has caught a glimpse of the Golden Age and is in search of it; everywhere he hits on mysterious clues to a lost world.’

In his account of how he acquired this work, Hugo Pitman says that it was untitled until 1940 when it was about to be loaned for the National Gallery exhibition. ‘I asked him (John) to give it a title. He said he would think it over and let me know. Two days later “Lyric Fantasy” came the answer. It must have been about 1952 when over at Fryern John said that he wasn’t all that pleased with the title of “Lyric Fantasy” and wanted it in future to be known as “The Blue Lake”.’ (From Hugo Pitman’s account The Story of’Lyric Fantasy’ and ‘The Blue Lake’, Tate file, p.4.)

Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1972–1974, London 1975.

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