Augustus John (1878-1961)

Silvia describes meeting Augustus John at one of the famous Chelsea Arts fancy dress balls;* he was dressed as a Viking in chain-mail and looked superb. ‘AJ’ had a reputation for having a commanding presence and unconventional appearance wherever he went! Silvia may also have known him through Albert Rutherston; he, along with AJ and William Orpen, were such close friends they became known as ‘the three musketeers’. Augustus was tall, Albert was short – maybe Orpen was in between…

AJ was 14 years older than Silvia but they were both Capricorns (27th Dec & 4th Jan). They shared a sense of being ‘outsiders’ having spent their early years respectively, in Malta & Pembrokeshire, rather than in (or close to) the artistic worlds of London & Paris. Besides this, they both lost a parent at a tender age – Augustus’s mother died when he was only six and Silvia’s father died when she was nine.

Whether or not Silvia was one of AJ’s many models is not for us to know. However, thanks to Michael Holroyd’s biography of AJ, we do know that in 1917 she was a member of the ‘John Beauty Chorus’ which sang an Ode to Augustus John. At the time, Silvia was studying at the Slade School of Art where ‘the three musketeers’ had all studied some twenty years previously. The Ode was part of the grand finale for a fund-raising pantomime held at the Chelsea Palace Theatre in aid of small concerts held on the Western Front. A second performance took place at the Lyric Theatre and was organised in conjunction with the Ladies Auxiliaries Committee of the YMCA. Evidently, both performances, and preceding rehearsals, were attended by duchesses and fashionable ladies alike, who vyed with each other about John’s questionable behaviour but continued to be in awe of him. **

The chorus consisted of a group of Slade girls. A list of participants is shown below, with Silvia at the top. Mention of a Miss Fausset at the end of the list is bit of an oddity as it is unlikely that there was another Fausset present. At the time, a fashion came into play for female artists to use their surname as a forename, famously by Carrington (at the end of the list) whose forename was Dora. She was born in the same year as Silvia but attended the Slade School in 1910-14 during which time Silvia was training to be an actress.


Miss Silvia Faussett Baker

Miss Faith Celli

Miss Vera Beringer

Miss Beryl Freeman

Miss Winifred Bateman

Miss Manora Thew

Miss Ellen O’Malley

Miss Elsie McNaught

Mrs Campbell

Miss Ethel Mackay

Mdme Vandervelde

Mrs Gordon Craig

Miss Sylvia Meyer

Miss Margaret Guinness

Miss Marjorie Elvery

Miss Eve Balfour

Miss Stella Storey

Miss Dorothy Goodday

Miss Janet Ross

Miss Olga Ward

Miss Barbara Hiles

Miss Phyllis Dicksee

The Hon Sylvia Brett

Miss Irene Russell

Miss North

Mrs Henderson

Mrs French

Miss Emily Lowes

Miss Dorothy Christine

Miss D’Erlanger

Miss Honor Wigglesworth

Mrs Hanney

Mrs Nigel Playfair

Masters Giles and Lyon Playfair

Mrs Dodgson

Miss Faussett



The Ode was sung by a Mrs Grundy, the lyrics were by Harry Graham and the music by H Fraser-Simson. There were three verses, each with a refrain and a chorus – all singing the praises of Augustus John.

1st chorus:

John! John!
If you’d get on,
The quaintest of clothes 
you must don!

When out for an airing,
You’ll hear folks declaring:
‘There goes an Augustus John!’

2nd chorus:

John! John!
How he’s got on!
He turns ev’ry goose
to a swan!
You needn’t be pretty,
Or wealthy or witty,
If you’re an ‘Augustus John!’

3rd chorus:

John! John!
How he’s got on !
No light half so brightly
has shone!
The verdict of Chelsea’s
That nobody else is
A patch on Augustus John!

According to Holroyd, the pantomime had an obscure backdrop involving the sculptor Jacob Epstein who did not volunteer for the war effort. Once compulsory conscription was introduced, he was duly called up but not before he had completed a sculptured head of AJ giving him a ‘certain wildness… an untamed quality that is the essence of the man’. Meanwhile, AJ avoided conscription on account of his knees, one of which was badly injured whilst walking in Ireland and the other following a fall. Epstein blamed the ‘monster pantomime’ for implying that AJ was the most popular artist of the day and that he was one of the ‘best-hated’. He imagined ‘this dastardly business’ was part of a conspiracy against him for not volunteering.

Years later, when Silvia published Journey to Yesterday, she reflects that she felt very strongly about the beauty of his (AJ’s) drawings and find it hard to be friendly or polite to anyone who speaks slightingly about them. In 1955, Augustus stayed at Castillo Santa Clara in Torremolinos where Silvia was staying. It was a popular venue amongst the artistic fraternity and full of arty gossip. Whilst in Spain, Augustus bought one of Silvia’s drawings and sent a cheque for it by post (?) when they were both back in England.

There are copies of a few letters, sent by AJ to Silvia, that are held in the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. One of them is dated 7th September but with no year. Another is undated but was penned after his visit to Torremolinos, as he talks about returning to pick up lots of canvasses which he left behind. He says he is hoping so much to see you (Silvia) and closes: Yours, with love, Augustus. A third one is dated 24th June 1956 when AJ bemoans the fact that he is getting older.

The last letter is written, in a shaky hand, on 7th January 1959 from his home in Fordingbridge. He admits that he has reached the “difficult age” all of a sudden when one is far too much at the mercy of other people. I shall never get used to it. He goes on to say I shall always remember the lovely way you had with the children from the school (in Spain?). I hope you keep on drawing and writing – you are so good at both. It is signed off: With love from us always under Capricorn, Augustus.

* The Chelsea Arts Balls, at the Albert Hall, were the Bohemian centrepiece in London’s social season. Either held on Mardi Gras or New Year’s Eve, the Balls were extravagant affairs with over 100 performers, lavish decorations and up to 4,000 dancers all in fancy dress on the ‘Great Floor’ of the Albert Hall. With exotic themes such as ‘Egyptian’, ‘Noah’s Ark’, ‘Arabian Nights’ and ‘Sun Worship’, revellers would dance into the early hours until a breakfast was eventually served at 5am as an end to the festivities.

** Augustus John, The New Biography by Michael Holroyd (publ Vintage 1997) 

pp422-24, Appendix 5, footnotes p671; also pp580-581, footnotes p689.