Augustus John: Fryern Court, Fordingbridge.
Artist Augustus John was born in Wales in 1878. He became the darling of the art world and was well-known for his eccentricities. He often wore gypsy-style clothes and lived life in his own bohemian fashion.
He was married in 1900 but, because he loved women, that didn’t stop him having affairs most notably with his long-time mistress Dorothy McNeill, usually referred to as Dorelia.
This led to him enjoying a rather unusual household. Augustus John lived with his wife Ida and their children and Dorelia and her children by John lived with them.
John envied gypsies and their way of life so would often take his two women and their broods on touring holidays using traditional gypsy caravans.
How I first heard about this astonishing painter
Many years ago I was an art student looking for somewhere to live. I found a tiny cottage that was attached to a large manor house and jumped at the chance of living there.
My new landlady said ‘As you’re an art student, you’ll be interested to know that this house was formerly owned by Augustus John. The room that is your bedroom was originally his studio.’
I was too ashamed to tell her that I’d never heard of him.
But it was important to me to find out more and I was immediately hooked. His artwork fascinated me but the more I found out about him, the more astonished I was to learn about his wonderful lifestyle. He had been married in 1900 to Ida Nettleship and they had several children. But he was known for his womanizing and soon had more children by his mistress, Dorothy O’Neill, known as Dorelia.
They had lived in the very house that I was now renting.
Typical of many males, he saw no reason why he couldn’t have the best of both worlds – his wife and his mistress – and so their unusual household was formed.
Ida and Dorelia both lived with Augustus John at the same house and their children were brought up together.Due to his fondness for the gypsy way of life, they spent a great deal of time as a family touring in gypsy caravans. He had his own repertoire of Romany songs, and dancing and singing around the campfires were normal activities for the John children as they were growing up – Ida’s and Dorelia’s.
The family were also models for the painter – many artworks exist depicting Ida, Dorelia and their assorted children. Dorelia was a favorite model of Gwen, Augustus’ sister and a well-known artist in her own right.
He had many other affairs – and children – but Ida and Dorelia were the foundations of his family life.
The bohemian life continues
When Ida died, Dorelia and John continued to bring up her children.
They lived in Dorset in what would now be described as a commune with other artists, writers and poets being regular guests.
The occasional illegitimate child would turn up and be taken into the fold to be brought up by Dorelia who presided over the household wearing flowing gypsy-style gowns and robes. There were frequent parties, bonfires and dances alongside their collection of carts and caravans and there were plenty of animals wandering around the homestead.
This lifestyle continued when they moved to Fryern Court in Hampshire. This house too became a gathering place for artists and writers. Augustus John always allowed gypsies to camp within the ground of his home and would join them in their evening revelries.
He died in 1961 at the age of 83.
Did the artist HAUNT Fryern Court?
As I explained above, I rented an old cottage at Fryern Court, Augustus John’s home and I was told that
a) my bedroom had been his original studio and
b) that he had died in that room.
Now, I don’t believe in ghosts at all but…
During the time that I lived there, I had several ‘dreams’ where I ‘woke up’ to see a large bearded man standing at the foot of the bed. John, of course. I had never had dreams like that before and have never done so since. However, these ‘dreams’ were never frightening in the least.
In 2011, fifty years after this fascinating artist and bohemian died at Fryern Court, the local newspaper reported that there had been a mysterious fire at the property. The paper reported that the fire started – and damaged – the main part of the house. And yet the owners and occupants were away at the time.
The fire was reported by the tenant of the rented cottage – my former home; the former art studio.
Yet only the main part of the house, and not the cottage, sustained damage.If the owners were away, how did the fire start???
A video of the artist at home in Fordingbridge
I found a wonderful video showing Augustus John at work. It dates from August 1944 – during the Second World War. His original studio (my bedroom) can clearly be seen at 1.32 – it’s the window on the left – and the new studio he built is shown from 1.42. This had been converted to a private home by the time I lived there.
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