Two Jamaican Girls

WAG 3140


In this arresting portrait the air between sitters and artist is thick with something. But what? One girl looks away bored or indifferent, while the other, although making eye contact is inscrutable - maybe wary, slightly bemused. That could be explained by the fact that the artist, Welshman Augustus John, was very tall with long hair, and tended to wear earrings and a big black hat. The poet W B Yeats described him as 'the most innocent, wicked man I have ever met.' Clearly inspired by the girls' appearance, John has painted their rich complexions with fast, dabbing brushstrokes - under two hours was his usual speed - in a variety of colours - pinks, greys and deep plum blues. Seeing this painting another contemporary said 'Nature is for him like a tremendous carnival ... he enjoys it so tremendously he's moved to report upon it, in a fever of optical emotion...' The girls are hotel workers - among a number of Jamaican women John painted during a trip there in 1937. The Jamaicans were starting to rebel against British colonial rule, and because of his own search for personal freedom John felt an affinity with them. John had had a starry career with his 'psychological' portraits, as he called them. He'd painted Churchill - and Lord Leverhulme, founder of our Lady Lever Art Gallery, who was so enraged with the honest portrait he cut out the head. But John's career had stalled, and now he was nearly sixty. With his paintings of Jamaican women his talent re-emerged one last time. Although John taught at the University School of Applied Art for just a year, his energy and flamboyance stimulated a huge interest in new artistic developments. It was the University librarian who introduced him to his lifelong passion - Romany Gypsy culture. He went on the road in a traditional caravan with his wife, mistress and some of his many children.