Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Lydia Lopokova 1920c.

Augustus Edwin John RA OM (1878-1961)

Portrait of Lydia Lopokova, Augustus Edwin John
Oil on canvas
20th Century
75 x 41 inches, 190.5 x 104 cm
The artist; Augustus John studio sale, Christies 20th July 1961, lot 151, 800 guineas; The Fine Art Society 1985.
The Fine Art Society, Spring Exhibition, 1985
Lydia Lopokova was a leading ballerina in the early twentieth century, with rare qualities of expression and natural grace, as this masterful portrait by Augustus John shows. She was one of the ‘A-list’ celebrities of her day, and aside from natural talent for performance, was beautiful, clever, and popular. She was friends with Margot Fonteyn, E.M. Forster and T.S.Eliot; partnered by great Nijinsky; drawn (frequently) by Picasso; looked down on (like most people) by Virginia Woolf; and, finally, married to John Maynard Keynes, the great economist.

Lopokova was born in Tsarist Russia, the daughter of a St Petersburg theatre usher. After graduating from the Imperial Ballet School in 1909, she joined Diaghilev’s celebrated Ballets Russe, and performed in leading roles around the world. After her London Debut in 1918, Osbert Sitwell wrote of her “grace, pathos, entrancing cleverness, true comic genius, and liveliness... She developed the movements of her hands and arms in a way that hitherto no dancer had attempted, thereby achieving a new step forward in technique.” [1] She was in temperament as flitting as her celebrated dancing, and in 1919 abruptly left her first husband, Rondolfo Barocchi, with a note that simply concluded, “Excuse me if I trouble you, but I can’t do otherwise.”[2] Lopokova finally settled in England in the early 1920s, when the economist John Maynard Keynes fell “passionately and pathetically in love” with her [3]. They were married in 1925. She became a devoted wife, and enabled Keynes to continue working after his first serious illness in 1937.

Lopokova was introduced to Augustus John in 1921, by Vladimir Polunin, a Russian artist who worked as Diaghilev’s chief scene painter in London. John was then the most famous artist of his generation, and proposed the idea for a portrait himself. He wrote to Lopokova in July 1921 expressing his “hope that you will pose for me some time”[4], and concluded “I shall look forward with greatest excitement to painting a portrait of one I admire so greatly.” Whether by flattery or reputation, his approach worked, and sittings are recorded on 27th & 30th July, and 1st & 2nd August. A preparatory study, in pencil, is in the National Museum of Wales.

Progress was disrupted, Lopokova wrote, by John’s “obliterating at each successive sitting what he had accomplished at the previous one.” The process was so tiring, she later claimed, that “In the end I gave him up”[5]. But in fact Lopokova was simply too frightened of John to attend the final sittings, and the picture was left unfinished. It is unlikely, judging by other portraits of a similar date – ‘The Marchesa Casati’ of 1919, for example – that much extra work would have been required.

We can hardly begrudge the sitter her fear. John was famously avaricious in his sexual predations, and Lopokova famously attractive. We can surmise too that Keynes disapproved of John’s private habits, having written in amazement of John “encamped with two wives and ten naked children”[6]. The early 1920s was an awkward period for John, and marked the end of his most successful working period. In that respect, this picture, in its unfinished state, represents a vivid biographical account of John’s talent. It is brilliantly drawn and flawlessly composed, yet full of indecision and born out of impulse. It is one of the final products of John’s genius; that confluence of raw talent and irrational humanity which ultimately overwhelmed him. From the mid 1920s onwards, his artistic abilities declined in tandem with his increasing reliance on drink. Lopokova’s final verdict on this picture is therefore entirely fitting; “I shall forever remain like an unfinished symphony.”

[1] Lydia Lopokova, edited by Milo Keynes London 1983 p1
[2] Ibid p4
[3] according to Virginia Woolf
[4] Lydia Lopokova, edited by Milo Keynes, p197
[5] Society of Fine Arts Spring Exhibition catalogue, 1985
[6] Augustus John, Michael Holroyd, London 1996, p286
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