The present work is one of the earliest full-face portraits of Dorelia McNeill, the 22 year-old girl whom Augustus met and fell in love with early in 1903. In March that year his wife Ida gave birth to their second son, Caspar, and recognising the importance of Dorelia in her husband's life - she was to become his principal muse and model throughout the rest of the decade - Ida became remarkably open-minded about the role Dorelia was to play in their lives. They were soon living together - 'Gus and the queen of all the water lilies are here' Ida wrote to a friend the following year - and between them they bore John seven sons.
Among the numerous drawings John executed of Dorelia, full-face portraits are not so common. More often he drew her full-length, never in the nude, but wearing her long handmade dresses, which gave the impression of a tall, dreamy beauty who had all the time in the world to pose for the artist. The reality was different. She was short in stature, short in conversation and certainly not sentimental. She was endlessly taken up with babies and after Ida's death in 1907 took over the care of her small sons. Like Ida, she learned to accept Augustus's faithlessness and itinerant lifestyle and they remained together until Augustus's death in 1961. Dorelia died in her sleep at the age of 87 in 1969.
In this drawing, Augustus has used black chalk in three contrasting ways. The straight diagonal lines of the background (relieved with the odd scribble) offset the swirling lines of her hair which in turn contrast beautifully with the subtle moulding of her face. This style of draughtsmanship and the square dimensions of the drawing bring to mind his etchings, which he was working on at this period and which typically measured a few inches square.
The portrait can be compared with the black chalk drawing Miss McNeill (Manchester City Art Galleries), and the red and black chalk portrait Study of Dorelia (private collection, see Exhibition catalogue, Themes and Variations: The Drawings of Augustus John 1901-1931, Cardiff, National Museums and Galleries of Wales, 1996, p. 34).
We are very grateful to Rebecca John for her assistance in cataloguing this work.