Edie McNeill was the younger sister of Dorelia McNeill, Augustus John’s muse and mistress. The sisters had much in common: striking dark looks, a low, husky voice, and in spite of their nature – down to earth, practical – they had about them an air of mystery. They wore dresses made and designed by themselves – with a fitted bodice without collar or cuffs, and a long full skirt – which can be seen in the many drawings and paintings of them by Augustus.
Edie joined the John household following the death of Augustus’s first wife Ida in March 1907, the year after this portrait was drawn. The family left Paris where they had been living since 1905, and with Edie and Dorelia in charge of the children, they led a nomadic life, travelling by horse and caravan across England in 1909. After the family settled at Alderney Manor, Dorset in 1911, Edie remained indispensable to her sister, who had not only taken care of four of Ida’s sons but already had two of her own with Augustus. At the time of their move to Alderney Manor, all six boys were under the age of nine, a period recalled by Dorelia’s son Romilly (b. 1906) in his memoir The Seventh Child (London, 1932 and 1975). He became passionately fond of his aunt Edie, whose steady presence provided comfort in a turbulent home life; but with the birth of Dorelia’s daughter Poppet in 1912, he no longer held first place in her affection and ‘a series of tremendous rows ensued,’ which Edie hoped to end with an emphatic ‘nonsense’. Poppet remembered taking her for rides with a pony and a ‘sort of platform on wheels that had no sides, so we had the impression of going very fast.’ She had a fondness for Gin and It and was nicknamed by the children ‘Edie-with-a-hilly-nose.’
The artist Henry Lamb was a frequent visitor to Alderney Manor and like Augustus, he found Edie an inspiring model and a substitute for Dorelia, with whom he was in love. In 1927 the John family moved to Fryern Court, a rambling manor house near the New Forest in Hampshire. It was here that Francis Macnamara, eccentric Irish poet-philosopher, began courting Edie. Francis had inherited Ennistymon, an elegant Georgian house at Doolin, County Clare, and was father of three daughters from his first marriage, of whom the youngest, Caitlin, married Dylan Thomas. In her book Two Flamboyant Fathers (London, 1966), his daughter Nicolette Devas described him as ‘an explosive god.’ Fair-haired with bright blue eyes, and over six foot tall he ‘carried himself like a conqueror.’ He lived on theories – ‘some were fun, some were awful’ – about which he never had any doubts. He was attracted to Edie’s dark looks, intrigued by her ‘sphinx-like characteristics,’ and developed a theory that she was the Virgin Goddess. Some time in the 1930s they were married. Francis‘s temperament overpowered Edie who soon retreated into her own room and barely spoke, painfully aware that Francis was being pursued by a young, hot- tempered Irish girl named Iris O’Callaghan. Neglected by Francis, Nicolette Devas described her at this period as sad and thin. ‘With her black hair parted in the middle, and the John tradition clothes, her black eyes and dark skin, she reminded me of an elegant Indian woman.’ She retired to the country where she faded away, the date of her death unrecorded by those who wrote about her.