The Portrait that Never Was

Handwritten ink letter addressed to "my dear John" dated 1940
Part of the Irish Archives

Andrew Jameson (1855-1941) was a chairman of Jameson whiskey and a member of both the Senate of Southern Ireland and then Seanad Éireann. Around 1938, he sought to commission a portrait of himself by the celebrated artist Augustus John (1878–1961). The portrait never materialised, but the story of the unsuccessful commission is told in a collection of correspondence between Jameson, John and the Irish poet and author, Oliver St John Gogarty (1878-1957), who introduced Jameson to the artist in 1938.

Gogarty wrote to Jameson to tell him that John is very busy, and deliberately quotes high prices to put sitters off. He advised Jameson to write to John directly to avoid this outcome, adding that, ‘The romance associated with your world-famous product to which John is no stranger would make him most anxious to [do] your portrait.’

Terms of the Portrait

John wrote to Gogarty to say that he keeps swearing not to take on any more portrait work due to the time they take up, adding that ‘people seem to expect (& desire) still a kind of licked up coloured photograph’. Jameson would have more sense, he believed, so was willing to do a half-length portrait for £1000 on the condition that the painting not be ‘seen or commented on till it is done’. Gogarty advised Jameson to take the offer as is not extortionate compared to that charged by Sir William Orpen (1978-1931) ‘whose work is tuppence compared to John’s’.

Agreeing to these terms, Jameson initially suggests to John that they begin sittings in February 1939. He agreed with John’s request that the portrait is not commented upon until it is completed, writing that ‘it would not suit me at all to have it talked about’. Jameson requested secrecy regarding the project and John later wrote that he would ‘exercise the greatest discretion & would be quite ready to adopt some form of disguise if necessary!’

A Series of Delays

In February 1939, John told Jameson that, he too is not well, and commented on the resulting delay this will cause for the portrait sittings. John offers to come to Ireland for the sittings if that is more convenient, writing that “it is a country I am very fond of visiting”. Further disruptions are caused due to John’s portrait of Queen Elizabeth being stalled. He must wait on her convenience before travelling to Ireland. John also writes that “while waiting I might finish off one or two other jobs before Hitler decides to devastate London”. With continuing bad luck, Jameson's health then takes a turn for the worse and he explains that he will be laid up for the foreseeable future. When Jameson is later able to travel to Dublin, he writes to John again regarding dates he might come to Ireland. However, John now has tonsillitis and is still finishing the portrait of the Queen.

Calling it Off

Jameson writes in June 1940 to say the British Government has issued an order preventing exit permits for Ireland meaning that John can not travel. He reluctantly concludes that they will have to write off their plans for the portrait. In his final letter to John, Jameson further explains he now feels too old to be the subject of a portrait, as he no longer resembles the man he once was. The correspondence ends on a good note with well wishes to John. 

While the Andrew Jameson's portrait by Augustus John never came to fruition, this series of letters offers a window into an artist’s professional life in the late 1930s/early 1940s including the impacts of World War II, commission rates and negotiations, and discussion of other creatives of the time. 


Mary Clare O'Brien, HW Wilson Fellow

Published online: 2022