Caitlin and life with the Johns

Week II

Augustus John about the time he painted Caitlin.

Augustus John about the time he painted Caitlin.

The four Macnamara children, John, Nicolette, Brigit and Caitlin, when abandoned by their father, must have sought some stability from their mother Yvonne. But she was distracted by her passion for Nora Summers, and was just not available. Instead they were scooped up by the artist Augustus John, and his mistress Dorelia McNeil, and, saying good-bye to Doolin, were brought to live in his rambling red-brick home in Dorset. At the end of a sweep of gravel, lost in rhododendrons and trees, Alderney Manor was surrounded by miles of moorland. It was an ideal and happy playground for young children.

The Macnamara children, and the John lot added up to 12. Augustus’s first wife, Ida Nettleship, had died. She was the mother of David, Robin, Edwin, and Henry (although Henry was raised by his mother’s family ). Dorelia, or Dodo as she was called, was the mother of Pyramus (who died of meningitis in 1912 ), Romilly, and the girls Vivien and Poppet.

Augustus adored Dorelia. Probably his best painting The Smiling Woman (1909 ), shows Dorelia sitting in a flowing red dress with a very knowing smile.

She ran this busy and noisy household with a firm hand. She produced all the vegetables from her kitchen garden; milk, cream and butter from her cow, and practically everything else, including making all the children’s clothes, preferring, even in winter, flowing dresses and loose jackets. No warm woolies were allowed.

The children all recalled the constant arrival and departure of visitors, most of whom were artists and poets, but politicians, famous personalities, actors and writers also showed up. No one introduced anyone to anyone; people just arrived. Some stayed a few days, some stayed weeks, months, or in the case of Dorelia’s sister, Edie, who stayed forever helping out in the kitchen. The family gathered in ‘an immense long living room, where meals were served on a refectory table down the middle with benches on either side’.

Augustus had a studio in Chelsea. He had a habit of patting on the head children whom he met in the street ‘in case’, he said, ‘ he is one of mine.’ His philandering with women was legendary. Yet, usually at weekends, he ‘aimed his car (a four-door Morris Cowley ) at Dorset, and drove at speed in ‘as straight a line as possible in total disregard for anyone else, pedestrian or motorist.’

At table Augustus could become incensed when the boys did not behave properly. Father and sons regularly fought each other, rolling over, biting and screaming on the floor.

When later Augustus and his tribe moved to a larger house, Fryern Court, a 14th century friary, near the New Forest, the Macnamaras moved into a house nearby, but kept in constant touch with the Johns by ‘bus, bicycle, horse and car.’

Nora and Gerald Summers also moved nearby so that Nora and Yvonne could continue their relationship.

Miserable at school

Education, particularly in the case of the girls, was not taken very seriously. Tutors came and hurriedly left. Caitlin was 14 years old when, at her own insistence, she attended her first school. Imagining that boarding school would be a continuation of her uninhibited existence, she begged to be allowed to attend a rather snobby manor school in Bournemouth. After a childhood of complete freedom, practically running wild with her siblings and the John children across the moors, swimming in the Avon, and riding bareback, the discipline of school came as a shock. Her sister Nicolette describes poor Caitlin’s first visit home. She stood in the door, dressed ‘in a hideous mustard -brown school uniform, with brown lisle stockings, a velour hat with a gold badge, and she carried a lacrosse stick among other things. With these clothes and her lovely mane of golden hair cut short in a fashionable shingle, she looked ugly.’

Caitlin was miserable. She stuck it for two more terms and then called it a day. Before she left the headmistress, clearly aware that Caitlin was destined for a life different than that of a Bournemouth lady, advised her to keep herself ‘clean in body and mind’. She was encouraged to ‘follow the code of a good Boy Scout’, and to take ‘special care to paddle her canoe between the rapids of men, scandal and poverty’.

When Caitlin showed that she thought all this was a laugh, the headmistress got cross. She pushed her saying: ‘You always were a little forest pony, my dear’.

A dancing career

Her late teenage years were spent on visits to Ennistymon, meeting her father (whom she increasingly disliked ), and developing her passion for dancing. She trained in Dublin with a Vera Gribben who claimed she was a friend of Isadora Duncan, the famous American dancer who lived in Paris with a succession of wealthy husbands. Vera encouraged Caitlin to imitate Miss Duncan’s style of dancing barefoot, in long flowing Grecian dresses, to classical music. When Caitlin demonstrated her dancing skills to all the John family the older boys laughed. Augustus, however, was delighted. He painted Caitlin’s portrait several times, and as was his custom, half-way through the sittings, he seduced Caitlin and they became lovers.

But the romance did not last long. Pursuing her dancing career in London, one evening in April 1936, while drinking in the Wheatsheaf pub in Soho, a young man, who had been watching her for some time, came over and fell on his knees. He laid his head on her lap, and said that she was the most wonderful woman he had ever seen, and if she would have him, he would marry her, and be the happiest man in Wales, London and the world.

The man was the young poet Dylan Thomas. For better or for ill they bonded that night, and would stay together until 17 years later, after downing 18 straight whiskeys, Dylan died in New York. Caitlin’s grief, by his hospital bed, was so extreme that she was taken away in a strait-jacket.

Next Week: Life with the poet

NOTES: Sources for the above from Two Flamboyant Fathers by Nicolette Devas (nee Macnamara ) Collins, London 1966, Caitlin - The Life of Caitlin Thomas by Paul Ferris, Pimlico Books, 1993, and Google.

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