John Austen, RBA (1886-1948) Early influenced by the work of Aubrey Beardsley, John Austen developed into an illustrator of wit and elegance by the mid 1920s, producing unusually decorative images that are associated with Art Deco. Both craftsman and auto-didact, he mastered a range of media, including etching and wood-engraving, and absorbed a variety of styles and motifs. John Austen was born in Buckland, near Dover, Kent, on 5 January 1886. The second child of a carpenter, he too trained as a carpenter on leaving school. However, in 1906, he moved to London, determined to become an artist, and initially took Aubrey Beardsley as his model. His studies were supplemented by life classes, and relieved by amateur dramatics.
In the words of the novelist, Dorothy Richardson, he became a ‘long-haired studio exquisite’, entering a bohemian circle, which also contained Richardson’s husband, Alan Odle, and Austin Osman Spare. Exhibiting with the Royal Society of British Artists, he became an associate in 1919 (and a full member in 1921). Following his marriage in 1919, he became a staff member of the Penny Illustrated Paper, and a year or more later illustrated his first book, R H Keen’s The Little Ape (1921). Subsequent books, including an edition of Hamlet (1922), contributions to The Golden Hind (co-edited by Spare) and advertising commissions all demonstrated a gradual stylistic independence, veering towards Art Deco decoration. With the help of the art critic, Haldane MacFall, Austen held a joint exhibition with Odle, Spare and Harry Clarke at the St George’s Gallery in 1925; there he showed his illustrative artwork for the first time, including several drawings from the recently published edition of Longus’ Daphnis & Chloe. The fame of this group was helped by the publication of Dorothy Richardson’s John Austen and the Inseparables (1930). Based in St John’s Wood until the end of the decade, Austen returned to Kent following an illness and, throwing off his aesthetic appearance, shared his time between his artistic work and country pursuits. Living first at his house in New Romney (circa 1928-36), he later moved to Petham and then Wingham. He produced illustrations for – especially – American publishers of limited editions, and turned his hand to writing, producing most notably a study of Don Juan (1939). He also taught at the Canterbury and Thanet Schools of Art, and shared his expertise with a wider audience through the manual, ABC of Pen and Ink Rendering (1937). Shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, he and his wife moved into Rose Cottage, West Hythe. When his health began to deteriorate, he lived in straightened circumstances, though supported by a Civil List pension. Dying at home on 27 October 1948, he was survived by his wife, Ruby ‘Tommy’ Thomson, who had been his chief model.