Apollo
Rakewell

When Miriam Margolyes met Augustus John

24 September 2021

Introducing Rakewell, Apollo’s wandering eye on the art world. Look out for regular posts taking a rakish perspective on art and museum stories.

Fans of Miriam Margolyes’ penchant for exuberant airings of her dirty laundry – witness her appearances on the Graham Norton Show, for starters, in which she had the likes of Lily Allen cringing into the red sofa – will be delighted by her anecdote-packed memoir, This Much is True, published this month. Rakewell’s attention was grabbed by a chapter titled ‘Nude Modelling for Augustus John’, which comes relatively early in the book – Margolyes was 19 years old at the time – nestled between ‘Dinner with Isaiah Berlin’ and ‘Miriam Kibbutznik’. In 1960, Margolyes saw the artist being interviewed on TV, and was captivated – perhaps recognising a kindred spirit: ‘He would have been in his eighties then,’ she writes (John died the following year), ‘but vigorous and naughty, and he had a mischief about him which I relished. He seemed the epitome of a great living artist.’

Having already had some experience of life modelling for students at the Ruskin (she grew up in Oxford), the teenage Margolyes looked up John’s address and wrote to him, offering her (free) services as a model. A few days later John’s wife Dorelia was on the phone, and managed to charm Margolyes’ mother into letting her daughter pose nude for the artist. When the day came at Fordingbridge in Hampshire, Margolyes recounts: ‘Augustus John came to the door and opened it. He was smoking a pipe, and he was tall and imposing with that full white beard and the shock of straggling snow-white hair I remembered from the television. He wore what I used to call dungarees – it was a boiler suit made out of denim – and he had a little, dark, flat cap like a beret on his head.’ Margolyes was given bread and jam by Dorelia in the kitchen, and when John saw her admiring a painting on the wall, he said: ‘My sister Gwen painted that, and one day people will come to realise she was a much better painter than I am.’

In John’s modernist studio – ‘Like the house, it was higgledy-piggledy and not at all tidy’ – the artist wasted no time: ‘I’m doing a study of bathers by the sea. You might as well take your clothes off now.’ And, having practised the swift removal of her polka-dot dress in her bedroom beforehand, Margolyes obliged without fuss, before being put to work clambering up and down a ladder and striking other poses ‘for a couple of hours’. ‘He didn’t talk much when he was drawing as he was concentrating, but he was always avuncular, like a humorous uncle, gentle and so sweet. It was a wonderful experience and I cherish it.’

But, true to form, Margolyes doesn’t leave it there: ‘I’m not sure that I shouldn’t be insulted that he didn’t attempt at least a quick grope, or whether it was Dorelia’s watchful eye that ruled out any unseemly advances, because I later discovered that Augustus John’s insatiable sexual appetite had allegedly resulted in his fathering up to one hundred offspring. Supposedly, whenever he walked down the Kings’ Road in Chelsea, he would pat any passing ragamuffin on the head “in case it’s one of mine”.’

Got a story for Rakewell? Get in touch at rakewell@apollomag.com or via @Rakewelltweets.

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