Augustus John OM

Walpurgis Night. Verso: Study of a Man


Not on display

Augustus John OM 1878–1961
Ink and watercolour on paper. Verso: ink and watercolour on paper
Support: 349 × 483 mm
Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1917

Catalogue entry

N03172 WALPURGIS NIGHT c. 1900
Not inscribed.
Pen and wash, 13 3/4×19 (35×48); during the execution the original paper, 13×19 (33×48), was stuck on to a larger sheet in order to increase the area.
Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1917.
Coll: Henry Tonks, who presented it to the C.A.S. c. 1913.
Exh: C.A.S., Loan Exhibition, Manchester, winter 1911 (165); C.A.S., Loan Collection of Modern Paintings, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle, October 1912 (54); C.A.S., First Public Exhibition in London, Goupil Gallery, April 1913 (92); C.A.S., Purchases and Gifts, 53 Grosvenor Street, June 1914 (23); C.A.S., Modern Paintings, Belfast, November 1914 (34); Arts Council tour, 1948–9 (92).
Lit: William Rothenstein, Men and Memories 1872–1900, 1931, pp.355–6; Earp, n.d., pp.20–1.
Repr: John Fothergill (ed.), The Slade 1893–1907, 1907, pl.11; Studio, CI, 1931, p.87.

This drawing used to be considered a product of John's student days at the Slade School, which the artist left in 1898, but there is little evidence to support this. ‘Walpurgis Night’ was not set as a Sketch Club subject and from the point of view of composition this drawing seems an advance on the drawings John did at the Slade. It is known, however, that John was working on this subject in the summer of 1900; in a letter from Swanage to Sir William Rothenstein John writes: ‘I have started a colossal canvas whereon I depict Dr Faust on the Brocken. I sweat at it from morn till eve.’ A little later he wrote: ‘... I work desperately at my colossal task; I can say at any rate Faust has benefited by my malady. [John had caught German measles.] In fact it is getting near the finish. There are about 17 figures in it not to speak of a carrion-laden gibbet.’ Presumably referring to the same canvas, John wrote in another (undated) letter from Swanage to Michel Salaman: ‘Here am I just starting a canvas 8×5 1/2 on which I will limn a decoration representing Walpurgis Night on the Brocken.’ The Tate Gallery wash drawing thus most likely belongs to this period. It is not known what has become of the large decoration although two smaller versions of the subject are known to exist. One is an oil belonging to Humphrey Brooke (repr. Country Life, 25 March 1954, p.866), which may be of an earlier date, while the other is a wash drawing which used to be in the Quinn Collection and was sold at the Independent Gallery in July 1923 (4). A number of related drawings were in the second sale of John's Studio, Christie's, 21 June 1963.

Saint Walpurga's Day is the First of May and by some peculiar turn of fate the name of this nun was associated with the orgies of witches that took place on the eve of May Day, which became known as Walpurgis Night. The Brocken or Blocksberg, the highest point of the Harz Mountains, was regarded as the centre of the Witches' Sabbath revelries. Goethe used the Walpurgis Night theme in Faust, and in this picture John depicts Mephistopheles and Faust taking part in the orgy.

Published in:
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, London 1964, I

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