LONDON'S Royal Academy, like most academies, tends toward the safe, the sure and the mediocre. Yet it boasts one member of genius in brash, bush-bearded old Augustus John. Last week the academy opened a dazzling retrospective of John's lifework, including some 230 portraits. The display amply documented the fact that John, at 76, still upholds a vigorous and perceptive tradition of portraiture.

John remembers that in his student days he was "enslaved" by one of the few Americans who ever captured London: James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Actually, his work recalls another American artist whose successes in England were even greater than Whistler's:...

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