Robert Sargent Austin, RA, RE, RWS,, 1895-1973
Portrait of John Boynton Priestley 1894 – 1984
Portrait of John Boynton Priestley

"Austin /1926"

Coloured Chalks
48 x 38 cm. (19 x 15 in.)


Sotheby's, Olympia Lot 8,  05-19-2004


John Boynton Priestley, (1894–1984), writer, was born on 13 September 1894 at 34 Mannheim Road, Bradford, Yorkshire, the only child of Jonathan Priestley (1868–1924), schoolmaster, and his first wife, Emma Holt (1865–1896). His father was one of several children of an illiterate mill worker, while little is known of his mother except that she might have been a mill worker, and she had a brother, Tom, who kept one of Bradford's most popular public houses. She died when Priestley was two years old, and in 1898 his father married Amy Fletcher, whom Priestley described as a loving stepmother; his stepsister, Winifred, was born in 1903.

Education and war service
The young John Priestley (the middle name, Boynton, was added mysteriously in later years) was educated at Whetley Lane primary school, Belle Vue preparatory school, and then, on a scholarship, Belle Vue high school. His father wanted him to go on to college but he left at sixteen, complaining that school had become tedious, and so went to work as a clerk for Helm & Co., a wool firm with offices in Bradford's Swan Arcade. It was during this period that he first began writing for publication and had his own column in the Labour Party weekly, the Bradford Pioneer, under the title 'Round the hearth'. Later he described his pontificating as sounding as if it had been written by 'a retired clergyman about 150 years old' (Priestley, Margin Released, 70). He was to return to that period throughout his life, his nostalgic writings recalling a golden age before the First World War.

In later life Priestley was continually referred to as Jolly Jack Priestley, the somewhat rotund, bluff, pipe-smoking, archetypal Yorkshireman, but he was far more complex than that, and the roots of the dark side of his character go back to his service on the western front in the First World War. He enlisted as a private soldier in the duke of Wellington's West Riding regiment early in September 1914, and went through almost the entire war in the trenches, being wounded twice. He finally accepted a commission in 1917. Unlike many of his contemporaries, such as Robert Graves, he did not write of his experiences until nearly half a century later, but his letters home make bitter reading, not least his last to his stepmother, which enclosed dried flowers found 'growing out of dead men'. In the book of essays Margin Released (1962) he wrote:

I felt as indeed I still feel today and must go on feeling until I die, the open wound, never to be healed, of my generation's fate, the best sorted out and then slaughtered, not by hard necessity but by huge, murderous public folly.

Priestley, Margin Released, 136
After Priestley's death his fellow Bradfordian John Braine said of him: 'I think the real Jack Priestley died in August 1914 somewhere on the Western Front … and what all those millions and millions of words were really written for was so that he wouldn't remember the 1914–1918 War' (Braine).

After the war Priestley took advantage of a grant enabling former officers to go to university, and in 1919 he went up to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, to read English and history, later switching to history and political science. Like many of his contemporaries who had fought in the war, he was unhappy at Cambridge, surrounded by 'immature' eighteen-year-olds. He also felt self-conscious about his accent and background. However, he made one lifelong friend in the poet Edward Davison, a friendship which survived Davison's permanent move to the USA, for the two wrote constantly to each other until Davison's death in 1970.

On 29 June 1921, eight days after acquiring his BA, Priestley married Pat Emily Tempest (1896–1925), a librarian and his long-time girlfriend, in the Westgate Baptist Chapel, Bradford, where his father was a lay preacher. He remained at Cambridge for a further year after his marriage. During this time his first two books, Brief Diversions (1922) and Papers from Lilliput (1922), were published; the first is a collection of epigrams, anecdotes, and stories, the second a series of essays on personalities past and present. In 1922, after turning down a teaching post, he moved to London, determined to succeed as a writer, and he and his wife set up home in Walham Green. Here he worked as a freelance for, among others, J. C. Squire's London Mercury, The Bookman, The Spectator, the Saturday Review, and the Times Literary Supplement, and as a reader for the Bodley Head, as a result of which he found himself mixing for the first time in the literary circles of the day.

In March 1923 Priestley's wife gave birth to their first child, Barbara, to be followed prematurely in April 1924 by a second daughter, Sylvia, when it was discovered that Pat was suffering from the cancer which was to prove terminal. Priestley then suffered another blow, with the death of his father in June 1924. Priestley moved his family to Buckinghamshire, where he struggled to survive and pay the medical bills by writing freelance pieces for a variety of publications. He also published several books, the most notable being English Comic Characters (1924) and a biography, George Meredith (1926). The latter, he said, was written because he was 'so deep in despair I didn't know what to do with myself' (J. Cook, Priestley, 1997).

During this period Priestley met Jane Mary Wyndham Lewis, née Holland (1892–1984), a graduate of Bedford College, London, who was to become his second wife. Her marriage to the journalist Bevan Wyndham Lewis was not a success, and was to end in divorce in 1926; she and Priestley began an affair which resulted in the birth of a daughter, Mary, in March 1925. Priestley had a number of affairs and in later life in Over the Long High Wall (1972), he described himself as 'lusty' and as one who has 'enjoyed the physical relations with the sexes … without the feelings of guilt which seems to disturb some of my distinguished colleagues' (Priestley, Long High Wall, 13). In autumn 1925 Priestley moved back to London to be near Guy's Hospital, and on 25 November 1925 Pat Priestley died. On 9 September 1926 Priestley married Jane Wyndham Lewis, combining the two families, for as well as Mary, Jane had also had a daughter, Angela, with Wyndham Lewis. Priestley and Jane were to have two more children, Rachel (b. 1930) and Thomas (b. 1932). The marriage, in spite of Priestley's infidelities, was to last nearly thirty years before it ended in divorce, although it nearly foundered in 1931 when he had a serious relationship with the actress Peggy Ashcroft.

Priestley's literary output between 1926 and 1929 was immense and covered almost every field: collections of essays, including Open House (1927) and The Balconniny (1929); a biography of Thomas Love Peacock (1927); literary criticism, The English Novel (1927) and English Humour (1929); and his first attempts at fiction, Adam in Moonshine (1927), and a gothic novel, Benighted (1928). During this period A. D. Peters, who had been at Cambridge with Priestley, became first his agent and later his business partner.

Shortly before Pat's death Priestley formed a deep and lasting friendship with the best-selling novelist Hugh Walpole. To no other person was he able to reveal his feelings and insecurities as he did in his letters to Walpole and Walpole reciprocated with tremendous warmth, affection, and constant support. In 1927 Walpole suggested they write the joint novel Farthing Hall (1929). Because of his own popularity Walpole could command a substantial advance, and this he gave entirely to Priestley, thus enabling him to write the book that was to make his name and fortune. The Good Companions, a picaresque novel 250,000 words long, was completed in March 1929, and published in July. Sales started slowly, but by Christmas the publishers Heinemann had to use taxis to rush copies to bookshops, so great was the demand; it became one of the best-sellers of the century. He followed this with what some consider his best novel, Angel Pavement (1930).

Although Priestley was to continue writing almost until the end of his life, the 1930s were particularly fruitful, with lesser-known novels such as Faraway (1932) and The Doomsday Men (1937); the autobiographical essays printed in Rain upon Godshill (1939); his biography Charles Dickens (1936); and the remarkable book of social commentary, English Journey (1933). In English Journey he travelled from the south to the north of England, brilliantly describing in bitter prose the poverty and unemployment of the time. Nothing becomes Priestley's humanity and social conscience better than his comments on the horrors of Rusty Lane, West Bromwich, when he suggests that future economic conferences in Britain should be held not 'in Mayfair in the season but West Bromwich out of season. Out of all seasons except the winter of our discontent' (Priestley, English Journey, 115).

Priestley had always had a love affair with the theatre, and during the thirties he wrote fourteen plays, the best-known of which are Dangerous Corner (1932), Eden End (1934), I Have Been Here Before (1937), Time and the Conways (1937), When we are Married (1938), and Johnson over Jordan (1939). He put his own money into Dangerous Corner when his backers took fright, and it was a tremendous success. Later he described it as 'merely an ingenious box of tricks' (Priestley, Margin Released, 199), but, like the classic comedy When we are Married, it has rarely been out of repertory since. I Have Been Here Before and Time and the Conways show his growing fascination with J. W. Dunne and P. D. Ouspensky's theories of time, while Johnson over Jordan was a brave experimental piece of work starring his friend Ralph Richardson, with music by the young Benjamin Britten and design by Gordon Craig.

Throughout the thirties Priestley was a regular visitor to the United States, spending family holidays in Arizona, going on lecture tours, and writing film scripts, most of which are unknown, except for Sing as we Go, a vehicle for the Lancashire entertainer Gracie Fields. As a result he numbered among his friends most of the great names of the Hollywood of the day, including Charlie Chaplin and Groucho Marx.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Priestley approached the BBC and asked if he could do some broadcasting. The result was the famous Postscripts, broadcast on Sunday nights after the 9 p.m. news. The series ran from June to October 1940, and quickly became not only a national but an international institution, his deep, resonant voice proving compulsive listening. The segments varied from the comic to the deeply serious, the latter including a reminder to listeners of what had happened to the men of the First World War who had returned from the trenches only to be faced with unemployment and poverty, and demanding that it did not happen again. A critical minority, led by the MP Brendan Bracken and a section of the media, demanded that the broadcasts be stopped on political grounds; although letters were running 300:1 in Priestley's favour, the BBC dropped him, possibly on the orders of Winston Churchill. During the war he also wrote several topical novels, a number of information booklets such as Britain at War (1942), and three plays, the best-known of which is They Came to a City (1943).

Although never a member of a political party, in 1945 Priestley stood as an independent candidate for the Cambridge University seat on a broadly socialist agenda, but was defeated. This was probably just as well, as he could never have borne the life of a back-bencher. In 1946 he wrote one of his best-known plays, An Inspector Calls and, unable to find a venue for it in London, sent it to his Russian translator, as a result of which it had its première later that year jointly in Moscow and Leningrad. In 1949 it was made into a film starring Alistair Sim. While Priestley's plays have always been popular outside London and abroad, it became fashionable over the years to consider them too old-fashioned for metropolitan audiences, a view which took a severe knock when Stephen Daldry's production of the play for the National Theatre in the 1990s became a critical and box-office smash hit not only in London, but in major cities all over the world. Over the years he wrote several more plays, including The Linden Tree (1947) and, with Iris Murdoch, A Severed Head (1963), but one feels that the main impetus had gone.

Priestley was to write only five more novels, of which by far the best are Bright Day (1946) and Lost Empires (1965), both with autobiographical overtones, although his own favourite was the two-volume The Image Maken (1968). However, he continued writing non-fiction right up until 1977, his most remarkable achievement being a tour de force, Literature and Western Man in 1960.

Priestley never enjoyed belonging to any movement or society, and was notorious for resigning from them when he had joined, but he was persuaded to represent literature and the arts at the setting up of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) in Mexico at the end of 1947. At a preliminary meeting held in Paris he met Jacquetta Hawkes, née Hopkins (1910–1996), archaeologist and writer, the wife of the archaeologist Professor Christopher Hawkes. They began an affair which was to last until both were divorced. The Hawkes divorce was contested, and the judge's subsequent scathing remarks about Priestley made headlines in the national press. On 23 July 1953 he married Jacquetta, and settled into what he and his friends described as an idyllic marriage. He also moved from the Isle of Wight, where he had been living since before the war, to Kissing Tree House on the outskirts of Stratford upon Avon. The two wrote one memorable book together, Journey Down a Rainbow (1955).

Priestley's critical essays continued to range over a host of subjects and on occasion could be prophetic, such as his coining of the word ‘admass’ in Journey Down a Rainbow to describe what he feared would become a rampantly consumerist society. For many years he had contributed to the New Statesman, and in 1957 he wrote an article which led directly to the founding of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, with which his name will always be associated. He never sought honours and over the years turned down a knighthood and two offers of peerages, but was proud to accept the Order of Merit when it was offered to him in 1977.

J. B. Priestley was a big man in every respect, in bulk, in his prodigious appetite for work, and in his generosity of spirit. He was a man of many loves; he loved women and women loved him, not only his wives and those with whom he had affairs, but also those who became his friends. He loved the old music-hall, theatre, music, particularly the great German composers (he was a good pianist), classic literature, and the English countryside, especially the Yorkshire dales. In his later years he also became an accomplished painter in watercolour and gouache. He was a confirmed grumbler, could be extremely difficult when the mood took him, and never suffered fools gladly, even when it might have been politic to do so. The darker side of his nature never left him, however, and in later years he increasingly fell prey to depression.

Priestley suffered throughout his life from the metropolitan literary attitude towards writers from the provinces in general, and towards those who are successful in particular. The fact that he had written an international best-seller often led to unfair disparagement. 'I was outside the fashionable literary movement even before I began', he said, which was true (Priestley, Margin Released, 188). He also often said that he never claimed genius but 'had a hell of a lot of talent'. Paul Johnson rightly described him as 'a shrewd, thoughtful, subtle, and sceptical seer, a great craftsman' (DNB); John Atkins, in his 1981 book on Priestley's work, dubbed him 'the last of the sages'. Having travelled widely, Priestley spent the last years of his life in Warwickshire. He remained forever sceptical of Christianity but wrote that he hoped that at death the human spirit was not entirely extinguished, 'snuffed out like guttering candles' (Over the Long High Wall, 119). He died of pneumonia at Kissing Tree House on 13 August 1984, surrounded by his family, and his ashes were buried in Hubberholme church, at the head of Wharfedale in Yorkshire. His memorial in the church reads: 'Remember J. B. Priestley O.M. 1894–1984. He loved the Dales and found “Hubberholme one of the smallest and pleasantest places in the World”'.

Judith Cook Oxford DNB.






Artist biography

Robert Sargent Austin RA PPRWS PPRE (23 June 1895- 18 September 1973) was a noted artist, illustrator, engraver and currency designer and widely considered to be one of Britain's leading mid-twentieth century printmakers.

Robert Sargent Austin’s talent was first recognised publicly, as a precocious eight year old, when he successfully submitted work to the Royal Drawing Society in his hometown of Leicester. His friends would later say that art became to him as essential as breathing, and this early success marked the beginning of a daily drive to draw, paint and etch that would mould him into the artistic force that he became.

Austin studied at Leicester Municipal School of Art from 1909 to 1913 then at the Royal College of Art in London where his studies were interrupted by the First World War. In London, serious, patient, comprehensive study of life drawing was the first discipline taught and can be singled out as the experience that most influenced his uncompromising attitude to learning and practising art. The First World War interrupted his progress; he served as a gunner in the Royal Artillery from 1915-1919, however the delay meant that he became a pupil of the famous etcher, Sir Frank Short, when he resumed his studies. He returned to the College in 1919 when he studied etching under Sir Frank Short and was awarded a scholarship in engraving to study in Italy. During the last 10 years of the etching revival between 1920 and 1930 he produced etchings from copper plates worked in very fine detail in an almost Pre-Raphaelite style.

Robert Sargent Austin’s career was notable for the ease with which he perfected different artistic techniques, and his etchings under Sir Frank Short were so proficient that he won a scholarship to the British School in Rome in 1921. This was an unrivalled opportunity to be immersed in Italian artistic culture and if his methodology was formed at the Royal College of Art, then his style was most influenced by this period of discovery. Through extensive travel around the country and careful study of the landscape and paintings, particularly the prints of the Old Masters, he found a source of influence that perfectly suited his own exacting practice of art. Additionally this also convinced him that line engraving was more suited to his temperament than etching. Mastering this new technique with ease he returned to England in 1926, a married man since 1923, and took up the post of professor of engraving at the Royal College of Art. He held this post until 1944 and the teaching of art quickly became as important to him as its practice. Pupils remember him as tough, frightening and often brutally honest, but found him an inspirational, dedicated teacher who would devote himself to students that showed enthusiasm. He was interested only in the execution of art; when he was given his new college name-plate he hung it over his lavatory door at home, highlighting a lifelong disinterest in the aggrandisement of ‘Art’ and its multifarious pretensions. A former pupil remembers him saying “We can talk about Art later, let’s find out how to draw first.’ He was promoted to the role of Head of Graphic Design at the Royal College of Art in 1948, but turned down the position of Principal as he wanted to remain an artist not an administrator.

During the Second World War Austin worked as a war artist recording the efforts of women in the Royal Air Force and in the nursing services for the War Artists' Advisory Committee. He then returned to teaching at the Royal College of Art as Professor of Engraving from 1946. Austin acted as an advisor on the design of banknotes to the Bank of England between 1956 and 1961 and designed the ten shillings and one pound notes issued in the early 1960s. Austin was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers (R.E.) in 1927 and succeeded Malcolm Osborne to become the Society's President from 1962 to 1970. He was elected a full member of the Royal Watercolour Society (R.W.S.) in 1934 and served as President from 1957 to 1973. He was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1939 and to the full membership (R.A.) in 1949 as an engraver.

Austin was married to the writer Ada May Harrison for whom he illustrated a number of books. They had a son, Robert, and two daughters, Rachel and Clare. He purchased an old Methodist chapel in Burnham Overy Staithe in North Norfolk and converted it into a studio where he could look out onto the beautiful marshes and landscape and paint. He used to paint in the early hours of the morning because he liked the light best at that time. Robert Sargent Austin’s purchase of a studio at Burnham Overy Staithe, Norfolk, in 1935 and the lives of his three children most influenced the content of his output. The Norfolk wildlife fascinated him (he particularly adored birds) and the landscape he found there stirred him to paint; his family remember him rising before dawn most days to capture the summer light at its purest between five and seven. The activities of his growing children, both in Norfolk and London, were his other constant source of artistic subject matter as the selection in this show demonstrates.

During the Second World War he was appointed official war artist to the Royal College of Art at Ambleside and his art became temporarily dominated by the Woolwich Arsenal, nurses, fighter pilots and other workers, particularly women, whom he felt were under represented in the War effort. The Imperial War Museum now holds thirty four of these pieces. The 1940s and 50s were dominated by a series of prestigious appointments and commissions in recognition of his prodigious talent. He was elected to the Royal Academy in 1948, made President of the Royal Watercolour Society in 1956 and asked to design the Bank of England’s new bank notes in the same year. In 1962 he was also elected President of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers.

The state of the art market needs to be borne in mind when assessing Austin's work, which until 1930 consisted mainly of prints; in the 1920s print-making was popular and it made sense to specialize. In 1927 his drawings sold for between 10 and 20 guineas and his engravings for 3 to 8 guineas each. Following the collapse of the print market in 1929 he made fewer engravings, and after 1940 his important works were drawings and watercolours, which he exhibited annually at the Royal Academy or the Royal Watercolour Society. With the exception of those in the Imperial War Museum, London, Austin's drawings are less well known than the engravings, which museums collected more consistently. Many landscapes resulted from visits to Norfolk, where he had a holiday cottage. He also produced flower and figure pieces and strong, perceptive portraits in chalks, for example that of F. R. Leavis (National Portrait Gallery, London).

The inflated 1920s print market favoured the spontaneous and mobile line of etching, but Austin soon developed an austere, linear style that called for the clear incised line of the engraver's burin, a tool demanding exceptional skill. He made his reputation with figure and animal subjects in the manner of the early masters of engraving, for example, the monumental Puppet Master (1926). He styled his monogram, ‘R.S.A’, on that of the early German engraver Schongauer. Other influences include the Pre-Raphaelites (his Summer Night, 1935, was inspired by a Millais illustration to Tennyson), and his strong design sense is partly a response to the cropped compositions of William Nicholson's woodcuts. The engravings of the 1930s are the finest of all his works, their subjects isolated on the plate and fixed in space by a perfection of design. Mask (1933) is a restrained and telling self-portrait, juxtaposing the life mask of Austin made by the sculptor James Woodford with a sprig of laurel, and recalling his days in Rome. Austin died on 18 September 1973 in Burnham Overy, Staithe, Norfolk, and was buried in Chiswick churchyard. Essentially a humble man he remained devoted to art for its own sake, uninterested in selling it or even receiving approval from others. Despite this his pictures are now held in the collections of the Tate Gallery, The Victoria and Albert Museum, The Fitzwilliam Museum, The British Museum and The Ashmolean Museum and a huge retrospective of his work was held at the latter in 1980.