Collection inventory

Special Collections home page
printer friendly version

Augustus John Letters

An inventory of his correspondence at Syracuse University

Overview of the Collection

Creator: John, Augustus, 1878-1961.
Title: Augustus John Letters
Inclusive Dates: 1933-1958
Quantity: 1 folder (SC)
Abstract: Eight outgoing letters written by the Welsh artist, portrait painter to author Gerald Brenan and his wife, Gamel. John writes extensively about his 1955 encounter with John Cowper Powys at his home at Blaenau Ffestiniog. Also a 1934 letter mentioning the celebrated British surgeon, Herbert Barker.
Language: English
Repository: Special Collections Research Center,
Syracuse University Libraries
222 Waverly Avenue
Syracuse, NY 13244-2010

Biographical History

Augustus John (1878-1961) was a Welsh artist and portrait painter. He studied at the Slade School in London (1894-1899) and in 1898 won the Slade Prize for his Moses and the Brazen Serpent. In 1914, by then a highly successful artist in Britain, he obtained a commission in the Canadian Army with permission to paint whatever he like on the Western Front. Although he was sent home only two months later for brawling, he attended the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919 and painted several of the delegates. By the 1920s John had become Britain's leading portrait painter whose sitters included Thomas Hardy, George Bernard Shaw, and T.E. Lawrence. Late in his life he wrote his autobiography in two volumes, Chiaroscuro and Finishing Touches.

Return to top

Scope and Contents of the Collection

The Augustus John Letters are a collection of eight items written by John to author Gerald Brenan and his wife Gamel. The letters discuss John's pleasure in reading Brenan's books, including his novel Jack Robinson, a satirical calendar entitled Dr. Partridge's Almanack for 1935, and South from Granada, a work on Spanish history and culture. However, the focus of interest of these letters rests in their illumination of the relationship between the portrait artist and his subject. Writing in 1934 of a celebrated British surgeon, John comments:

[Herbert] Baker has written inviting me to La Consula proposing that I should paint him while operating on a patient for next year's R. Academy. He will charge nothing for this. I hope we meet near Malaga (not Baker).

And in 1957, nearing 80 years old, John writes:

I have a dame in Portugal who wants me to paint here & and offers me her great rambling house in which to do it. I hear she is comely.

Yet in a series of letters written between 1955 and 1958, John describes a much different attitude toward his encounter with the aging British author, John Cowper Powys. Accompanied by his daughter Vivien to the Powys' home at Blaenau Ffestiniog, John found Powys (4 Dec 1955)

...full of beans and merry as a cricket. I think one drawing is a success & I hope to get it reproduced in the Sunday Times, which would please him. We both loved John Cowper and his companion Phyllis [Playter].

Recounting a meeting in a 1956 letter, John recalls:

I thought Powys was ninety but it seems he is only 85 or so. He was full of life & gaiety fact I was the old man, not he!

And in 1957, John writes of Powys:

I hope to paint him sometime - but not in his cottage where there is no room to turn. He gave me one of his books on leaving, the Gladstonbury one. It begins, continues, and ends with copulation - a great book.

Finally, in 1958, John poses the possibility of returning to Wales: paint Powys and Bertram [sic] Russell (who lives near) but again the question of a studio crops up. As both those men are about 100 years old there isn't much time to catch them on the top, so to speak.

Return to top

Arrangement of the Collection

Letters are arranged chronologically.

Return to top


Access Restrictions

The majority of our archival and manuscript collections are housed offsite and require advanced notice for retrieval. Researchers are encouraged to contact us in advance concerning the collection material they wish to access for their research.

Use Restrictions

Written permission must be obtained from SCRC and all relevant rights holders before publishing quotations, excerpts or images from any materials in this collection.

Return to top

Subject Headings


Barker, Herbert Atkinson, Sir, 1869-
Brenan, Gamel.
Brenan, Gerald.
John, Augustus, 1878-1961.
Powys, John Cowper, 1872-1963.


Painters, Wales.
Painting, Modern, 20th century.
Portrait drawing.
Portrait painters.

Genres and Forms

Letters (correspondence)



Return to top

Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

Preferred citation for this material is as follows:

Augustus John Letters
Special Collections Research Center,
Syracuse University Libraries

Finding Aid Information

Created by: KM
Date: Dec 1988
Revision history: 24 Jul 2007 - converted to EAD (MRC)

Return to top


SC 69, Folder 1 to Gerald Brenan 1933-1934 (3 letters)
SC 69, Folder 2 to Gamel Brenan 4 Dec 1955
SC 69, Folder 2 to Gamel Brenan 4 Feb 1956
SC 69, Folder 2 to Gerald Brenan 24 May 1957
SC 69, Folder 2 to Gamel Brenan Mar 1958
SC 69, Folder 2 to Gerald Brenan undated

Return to top