Augustus John met Dorothy McNeill, whom he dubbed 'Dorelia', in 1903 and later that year she moved in with the artist, his wife and family, becoming his muse. To him she was the embodiment of his complex ideal of womanhood and as Michael Holroyd commented: 'She was, of course, hypnotically beautiful - almost embarrasingly so, Will Rothenstein found: 'one could not take one's eyes off her'... In his portraiture, Augustus was like a stage director, assigning his subjects all sorts of dramatic roles. Dorelia, it seems, acquiesced in them, fitted each of them to perfection - mother, mistress, little girl, phantasm, goddess, seductress, wife. She became all things to him; she was everywoman' (Augustus John The Years of Innocence, London, 1974, pp. 148-149).
Over time, Dorelia's unique features have often been likened to that of the Mona Lisa and in his portraits of her, John often draws out a self possessed, enigmatic woman with an unwavering, hypnotic gaze that engages the viewer. The present drawing is such an example, Dorelia's composed, serene features drawn in confident and smooth pencil lines recall the soft moulding and lighting of an Old Master. Throughout his life John drew inspiration from the great painters of the Renaissance and by placing Dorelia within framing lines there are echoes of the great portraits of society beauties such as Leonardo de Vinci's Ginevra de' Benci and Domenico Ghirlandaio's Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni.
The present drawing forms part of a series of pencil sketches executed in 1909 of which two were exhibited in Spink's exhibition, Themes and Variations: The drawings of Augustus John 1901-1931, London, September - October 1996, nos. 53 and 54. In the former she wears a hat and cloak and then removes it in the latter to display the same neckline as in the present drawing.