‘It captures a painful truth: children long to please their parents, but parents too often – albeit unwittingly – confuse and fail their children.’

Robin, about 1912, by Augustus John (1878–1961), 17¾in by 12in, ©Tate Collection

Robin, about 1912, by Augustus John (1878–1961), 17¾in by 12in, ©Tate Collection

Caroline Quentin says:

‘I first saw this picture in my teens, decades before I had my own children. I remember an overpoweringly emotional response to the brutal honesty of the work. I wanted to comfort the child.

‘Nearly 40 years on, I still love the quality of the brushwork, the limited palette and the sheer skill of execution, but I now feel that the painting says more about Augustus John than it does about his son. I can see their relationship in the boy’s eyes.

‘This picture still affects me deeply. It captures a painful truth: children long to please their parents, but parents too often – albeit unwittingly – confuse and fail their children.’

Caroline Quentin is an actress and TV presenter. She is starring in the musical Me and My Girl at the Chichester Festival Theatre until August 25.

John McEwen says:

Augustus John, a notably free spirit where romance was concerned, is most notoriously associated with his mistress, Dorothy McNeill (1881–1969), reinvented by him as the gypsy Dorelia, with whom he had two daughters and two sons, but his first and only wife was Ida Nettleship (1877–1907), with whom he had five sons. She died at 30, of puerperal fever and peritonitis following her fifth child’s birth. Robin, the third, is pictured here aged eight.

By the time of Robin’s birth, Dorelia had already formed a ménage à trois with his parents, with John, ‘our child genius’ as Ida called him, at its centre. It was scandalous, even by bohemian standards.

John’s second son, Caspar, said his father enjoyed children – ‘not necessarily his own’ – to have around, ‘but he was never a warm-hearted man to us… I don’t think he ever understood himself, come to that’.

In the year of Robin’s portrait, John was grief-stricken by the death from meningitis of Pyramus, his first son with Dorelia, and maddened by his other sons. He asked a friend if he should have ‘the lot of them psycho-analysed’. Robin’s grim silences, matching his own – ‘he radiates hostility’ – particularly annoyed him.

Robin subsequently had a wandering life of many jobs. He could speak seven languages and was silent in all of them. Back in England, he spent most of the Second World War, according to his brothers, ‘gazing intently at a pot of marmalade’. He wrote of his relationship with his father that Augustus was a rebel; Robin ‘hated Bohemianism and yearned for a normal life – which made me in my turn also a rebel, but in reverse’.

It seems he eventually found his ‘normal life’ in 1956, through marriage.

‘Augustus John: Drawn from Life’ is at Poole Museum, Dorset, until September 30.