Author: VICTOR ARWAS
THE PAINTER Vivien John was the younger daughter of Dorelia and Augustus John and the niece of Gwen John. Her parents had little faith in education, so Vivien and her sister Poppet were never sent to school. Theirs was a wild and happy childhood, running barefoot in the countryside, riding ponies and donkey-carts, and playing with gypsies, only to be peremptorily summoned to pose for their father, frequently an object of awe and terror to his children. Aged two and a half it took lumps of sugar from Dorelia to persuade Vivien to sit still. Posing in later years proved even stormier.
The extended family included Augustus John’s five sons by his first wife, Ida, and visiting friends, often with children in tow. Poppet and Vivien were close to the Macnamara sisters Nicolette (later married to the painters Anthony Devas and Rupert Shephard), Brigit and Caitlin (later Mrs Dylan Thomas). Vivien painted and drew from a very early age, receiving only minimal instruction from her father and a bit more from such close family friends as Matthew Smith and Sue Palmer.
In 1932 Augustus allowed her to attend the Slade School, but only on condition she received no instruction. Three years later she had her first exhibition at the Cooling Gallery, after which she moved to the Euston Road, where she studied with William Coldstream and Victor Pasmore. The following year she went to Kingston, Jamaica, where she exhibited with her father. She travelled to Italy and Provence with him, roamed through Spain and Greece with friends and visited her aunt Gwen. In 1944 she returned to Paris to study at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere. Next year she entered the Chelsea School of Art, then met and married Dr John White, a haematologist with a fondness for exotic locales.
Her early paintings were accomplished and have great charm, studies of domestic interiors and provincial daily life. She lived with her husband in Russia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea reacting explosively to the intense light and change of mood there, transforming her palette to interpret the brilliant colours of lush flora, jungle, mountains and the sea. Occasionally flamboyant, she preferred to seek out and expose the more austere patterns of nature. The last 15 years of her life, though marred by ill-health, were very happy. She felt that she was finally out from under the shadow of Augustus and Gwen, she was painting fluently and rapidly in oil on paper, a technique she had developed in the tropics, and exhibited frequently, selling well.
Vivien John retained to the end beauty and seductiveness which came from a sweet and gentle nature that sometimes made her question her undeniable talent. In a letter to her Augustus had written: ‘You can do it’; and she had.
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