I had been struggling for something to write about when I happened upon a BBC programme, first shown some years ago, on iPlayer. For those of you who don't know, the list of programmes is not entirely restricted to what was shown in the last few weeks. There is a whole archive, where you can sometimes pick up little gems you missed first time around.
"A harmonious combination of two talents" was how one of the participants described the work done by Augustus John and James Dickson Innes, two Welsh painters who were the subject of a documentary called "The Mountain That Had To Be Painted". I knew a little about both of them, but I had no knowledge of Arenig Fawr, a mountain (actually a big hill) in Snowdonia where they settled for two years to take up a progressive style of landscape painting, under the influence of the Post-Impressionist movement, led by European painters such as Henri Matisse.
As the programme progressed, I began to notice parallels with the friendship of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. There was nothing similar about their lifestyles. John and Innes consorted with gypsies, drank heavily and shared (female) lovers. They were alleged to have stabbed themselves and mingled their blood in the back of a London cab. And yet...
Augustus John was eight years older than Siegfried Sassoon, and died six years before him. His mother, like Sassoon's, was an artist, but it was she, not his father, who died when Augustus was a small child. After hitting his head on a rock at the age of twenty, John embarked on an illustrious, often controversial career. He was 32 in 1910, when he began working with James Dickson Innes, whom he met through the "Camden Town Group" of progressive artists.
Innes was 23 in 1910, when he discovered the landscapes around Arenig Fawr. He felt it was ideal for his purposes as an artist, and was keen to take Augustus John there too. John, convinced of its suitability as a subject, joined Innes there to paint the mountain and surrounding countryside repeatedly over a two-year period. This makes me think of Innes as more of a Graves character than an Owen, someone who was ready to be a leader, rather than a follower, of his older acquaintance. He had the unconventionality of a Graves rather than the inhibitions of an Owen.
The two were later joined by a one-legged Australian artist, Derwent Lees, who married one of Augustus John's former models and was permanently committed to a mental institution by 1918. "He did paint rather well," said a patron, Lady Howard de Walden, "but was as mad as a hatter."
At the end of his torrid affair with Euphemia Lamb (whom Duncan Grant once called "the white haired whore"), James Dickson Innes is said to have buried her letters in a silver casket on the peak of the mountain. I cannot quite imagine Sassoon or Owen going to such lengths to memorialise a failed love affair; Robert Graves (who was daft enough to jump out of a window after Laura Riding), perhaps. Subsequent efforts to find the casket were abandoned after a Flying Fortress with an eight-man crew crashed on the summit in 1943; some of the wreckage is allegedly still there.
The story does not end there. Innes was consumptive. Advised by doctors to give up drinking, he took no notice. Just like a First World War junior officer, he knew the risks of his chosen path, and embraced them. Having made no attempt to clean up his lifestyle, he received one last visit from Euphemia and his friend Augustus John before dying in a nursing home in Kent in August 1914, just as his name was becoming known. He was 27 years old. Unlike Wilfred Owen, his reputation faded quickly after his death, though many of his landscapes can still be seen in major galleries such as the Tate and the National Museum in Cardiff.
Augustus John later became a war artist, producing, among other things, an unfinished mural called "The Canadians Opposite Lens", which was eventually put on display at Ottawa's Canadian War Museum in 2011..He continued to paint portraits, some of people Sassoon knew personally, such as Ronald Firbank, Madame Suggia and Lady Ottoline, not to mention poets like W H Davies and Dylan Thomas. He even took a few trips to Max Gate during the 1920s, to paint the elderly Thomas Hardy. He died in 1961, aged 83, a grumpy old man (according to his granddaughter) and a legend in his own lifetime.
The cottage the two artists rented near Arenig Fawr was demolished in the 1960s. In case you want to see what inspired them, the mountain is still there.