'It looks to me as if painter and subject were very well matched '

joanna trollope

The Marchesa Casati, 1919, by Augustus John (1878–1961), 38in by 27in, Art Gallery of Ontario, Canada

Joanna Trollope says:

I first saw The Marchesa Casati about 20 years ago, when I was at a literary festival in Toronto. I usually prefer the quiet, tortured paintings of Augustus John’s sister, Gwen, but this portrait of his is irresistible. The subject is plainly a load of infinitely seductive and dangerous trouble–even the skies behind her are stormy–and her pose, in her loose, creamy negligee, is as challenging as her expression. And I love the way she’s painted, the boldness of the palette and the brushstrokes, plus the sheer confidence that matches the mood of the sitter. It looks to me as if painter and subject were very well matched .

Joanna Trollope is a novelist. Her 20th novel, City of Friends, was published by Macmillan in January

John McEwen comments on The Marchesa Casati:

For the majority of his life, Augustus John was Britain’s most famous living British artist. Today, the Tate’s biographical entry is symptomatic of his demotion: ‘For a short time around 1910, he was an important exponent of Post-Impressionism in the United Kingdom. He was the brother of Gwen John.’

John was born in Tenby, Pembrokeshire, son of a Welsh solicitor, whose grandparents were labourers. ‘We come from a long line of professional people,’ his father assured him. His mother’s father was a Sussex plumber, Thomas Smith. She died when he was 11, but instilled a compulsion to draw in Augustus and Gwen, 18 months his senior. Both studied at the Slade School of Art, where Augustus won a scholarship and became the school’s star student.

Melancholic and chameleon-like, he adopted various personae. ‘My father kept everything dark, but I had an uncle descended from Owain Glyndwr,’ he wrote in old age. His taste for playing the gypsy he attributed to his mother, whom he reinvented as Augusta Petulengro (Romany for ‘Smith’). Meanwhile, he was internationally fêted as ‘last of the great masters’, appeared on the cover of Time (1928) and was awarded the Order of Merit (1942).

John met the notoriously eccentric Marchesa in Paris in 1919, when he was recording the Peace Conference for the Canadian government. The Marchesa, a self-invented work of theatrical art, filled a unique place in his life until she died, dependent on his handouts, in London in 1957. He relished her gypsy-like verve and briefly they were lovers, but, above all, he admired her ‘perfect naturalness of manner’. Lord Duveen, art dealer supremo, immediately pronounced the portrait ‘an astounding masterpiece’.