Earlier this month (12 June) I was one of a party of Salisbury Museum volunteers privileged to be taken to see the ‘Augustus John – Drawn from Life’ exhibition at Poole Museum.
As such I was intrigued to read that Augustus John was born in Tenby; intrigued because I was aware of a Blue Plaque to Augustus John in my wife’s home town of Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire. This stimulated me to check on my ‘Blue Plaques’ Pinterest site, from which I recalled that Augustus John once lived in Haverfordwest in the house in which his sister, the artist Gwen John, was born.
In this connection, the local J D Wetherspoon pub is The William Owen and this has many Augustus John reproduction paintings/prints on the walls. On discussing this with the landlord he informed me that Wetherspoon’s take a lot of trouble to integrate their pubs in with the local history. This was reinforced for me last year when I was listening to a ‘Word of Mouth’ programme on BBC Radio 4 about ‘Pub Names’. Here, one of the interviewees was Eddie Gershon, long time publicist for the J D Wetherspoon chain, who explained that Wetherspoons open about 20 new pubs per year, the vast majority of which have individual names based on the local history. An individual, Ray Colvin, is employed for the purpose of researching the local history.
Returning to The William Owen pub, this has information on the wall, in English and Welsh, about Augustus John:
“The leading portrait painter of his generation, Augustus John was born in Tenby, in 1878, but spent his early years in Haverfordwest. He and his sister, Gwen, were looked after by two aunts, Rose and Lily, both officers in the Salvation Army.
In the summer of 1897 Augustus hit his head on a rock whilst diving into the sea. The incident seems to have radically changed his character. A bohemian lifestyle followed, which made him one of the most talked about figures of his day. Many distinguished people had their portraits painted by John, including Dylan Thomas and Winston Churchill.” However, Lord Leverhulme was so upset with his portrait that he cut the head off it. Augustus John died in 1961, aged 83.”
And this about Gwen John:
“The highly acclaimed artist Gwen John was born in Victoria Place, Haverfordwest, in June 1876. Gwen painted and drew from an early age, later studying at the Slade School of Art in London.
In 1913 Gwen converted to Catholicism, saying “my religion and my art, these are my life”. Most of her paintings depict single figures, typically nuns, set in interiors and sensitively painted.
For many years her work was eclipsed by that of her brother, Augustus. However, he prophesied that one day his sister would be thought of as a better artist. Gwen John died in 1939, since when “his star has fallen and hers has risen”.
‘Girl Reading at the Window’ 1911
For completeness, one should mention that William Owen, after whom the pub is named, was appointed county surveyor in 1824, and was four times mayor of Haverfordwest. He was the driving force behind the improvements made in Haverfordwest in the early 19th century and designed several buildings in Haverfordwest.