What will we do when there are no longer caches of letters to piece together and decipher; only vague memories of myriad emails? We will be like butterfly hunters flailing around with our nets, hoping to catch some rare specimen with glittering wings among the detritus of daily exchanges. The letters of Ida Nettleship, first wife of the arch-bohemian Augustus John, are a case in point: gathered together here from diverse sources by her granddaughter Rebecca John and expertly introduced by John’s biographer Michael Holroyd, they constitute a rare epistolary treasure trove.
Spanning some 15 years, from Ida’s late teens to her early death from puerperal fever at 30, following the birth of her fifth son, they give us a startlingly vivid picture of what it was like to be bound by passion, loyalty and an ever-growing brood of offspring to a ‘genius’, whose rampant sexuality and over-arching egotism were altogether at odds with conventional notions of marriage.
Ida, herself the daughter of a ‘once celebrated’ painter, Jack Nettleship, went to the Slade at the age of 15 in 1892, and caught Augustus John’s eye towards the end of her six years there. She was already an enthusiastic correspondent, firing off teasing and somewhat arch letters to her sisters and beloved friends from the Slade, notably the Salaman sisters, to whose eligible brother Clement she would briefly be engaged. But once Augustus turned up, Clement stood no chance; the engagement was swiftly broken off in favour of the magnetic artist who wore earrings, often dressed like a tramp and kept company with gypsies and tinkers. Ada Nettleship, a quintessential Victorian matriarch, was appalled, and the couple stole away to be married privately. The extent to which Ada’s forebodings would be played out on the marital stage is the essence of this absorbing book.
Extracts from Ida’s letters were of course included by Holroyd in his celebrated biography of John, but here Ida, not Augustus, is centre-stage; hers are the eyes through which we see the story unfold.