Augustus John’s largest canvas, unfinished at his death in 1961 (at age 83), still sits in his studio at Fryern Court in Dorset, spray-painted over by vandals. It is a large composition inspired by the French philosopher Charles Fourier (1772–1837) in whose utopian plan for a wholly new order of society John discovered late in life a prophetic description of the way he had actually lived, believed, and exulted. He had been as messily and chaotically a bohemian as Joyce Cary’s Gulley Jimson, as adulterous as Zeus, and as pragmatically moral as his favorite people, the Gypsies.

And yet if we knew little of his life— which resembles nothing so much as a novel by Iris Murdoch about the enigmas and hygiene of muddled passions and bedeviled consciences—we could say that he was a portrait painter whose chief concern (as Sir John Rothenstein insisted) was civic order and dignity, as well as a lyric visionary...

 
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