LAST week, I called in to Salisbury Museum to catch up with this year’s summer exhibition – a look back at the work of the twentieth century artist Augustus John.

Although John’s work has been featured in exhibitions past, I think I’m right in saying this is the first time that the museum has displayed a retrospective on his work alone – a surprise, perhaps, given both his significance and links to the local area.

Augustus John was born in Wales in 1878, and after a difficult childhood reacted against his Victorian upbringing by becoming both an artist and celebrated bohemian.

Sporting a bright velvet jacket and earring, he was a charismatic and forceful presence, becoming well known for drinking and womanising. But behind this flamboyant exterior was someone deadly serious about their art, and with the skills to match.

John’s raw talent was in his drawings: ‘the greatest living draughtsman, the only modern who draws like an old master’, said WB Yeats: the ‘best made [drawings] in England since the Renaissance’, John Singer Sargent is reported to have said.

One of the treats of the exhibition is seeing how his pictures compare to the original drawings. John is one of those artists who can capture someone in a few lines – the life and movement in these sketches is remarkable.

But it was his paintings and portraiture that Augustus John became best known, including such famous faces of the time as Thomas Hardy and T E Lawrence. This skill of capturing people was both Augustus John’s blessing, and also perhaps his curse: while in the years before the First World War, he was seen as being at the forefront of British Art, after it, the advent of more avant garde techniques left his work behind. He continued to paint – moving to Fryern Court near Fordingbridge in 1927, where he lived until his death in 1961 – but it remains his earlier work that he is most remembered for.

Perhaps this is part of the challenge of being brilliant from a young age – the expectations of where an artist might go failing to match up with that earlier potential. Perhaps the war played its part, too: Augustus John’s pre-war paintings of France and Dorset are rich with colour, a palette that sat at odds with the horrors that followed.

Or perhaps he was just an artist a little out of his time – his skills were in his eye for the traditional techniques of drawing and portraiture, rather than in experimentation of style or form. That might explain why he is sometimes overlooked as an artist, but remains one worthy of exploration nevertheless.

Augustus John: Drawn From Life is at Salisbury Museum until September 29.