Johnson, Nevill (1911–99), artist, was born on 23 July 1911 in the family home at Buxton, Derbyshire, England, the youngest of two sons of Arthur Ernest Johnson, a wealthy cotton merchant, and his wife Florence Isobel (née Townsend). His parents' marriage ended (c.1930) over Arthur's womanising. The Johnsons were related to the prime minister Stanley Baldwin, and Nevill, whose middle name was Baldwin, recalled visiting 10 Downing Street when his namesake was in residence. He attended St Chad's preparatory school in Prestatyn, north Wales, and then Sedbergh School, Cumbria.
After his parents refused to send him to arts school, Johnson spurned the family business and in 1928 became a trainee at a local factory, painting landscapes in his spare time. He mixed with industrial workers and began the difficult process of shedding his strait-laced, bourgeois upbringing. In 1934 he was posted briefly to Newcastle and then to Belfast, where he worked for Ferodo, a manufacturer of brake linings. Socialising with local writers and artists, he shared their creative interests and radical politics, having been shocked by the poverty endemic in Newcastle and Belfast.
He befriended the painter John Luke (qv), and for two years developed his painting skills in Luke's studio, also working alongside his master in carving, mural painting, sculpture, woodcuts and ceramics. Luke's obsessive craftsmanship informed Johnson's paintings into the 1950s, most notably in his linear composition, smooth surfaces and use of tempera paint to achieve luminous colours (the last a technique associated with the early renaissance). A revelatory 1936 visit to modernist exhibitions in Paris and London prompted Johnson's departure from Luke's traditionalism through engagement with surrealist imagery and concepts. He filtered continental avant-garde influences through the more restrained surrealism of British artists like Edward Wadsworth and Paul Nash.
In the late 1930s, Johnson married Noelle Biehlman, a French woman teaching in Belfast. Holding a reserved job, he was refused enlistment in the RAF in 1939, and spent most of the war shuttling between rural abodes close enough for his commute into Belfast. He received commissions for paintings and sculpture, and exhibited at group shows in the Ulster Academy of Arts (1943) and the MacGaffin Gallery, Belfast (1946). Progressing initially by emulating the proto-surrealism of Giorgio di Chirico, he fashioned dreamlike, sharply defined scenes of unnerving stillness while honing signature traits such as dynamic perspectives, stylised displays of light and dark, and simple geometric forms dexterously arranged. The freakish appearance of the partially built ship's exposed ribs in 'Kilkeel shipyard' (1943; Down county museum) exemplifies his capacity for capturing inert objects' grotesquely biomorphic features.
Existentialist preoccupations permeated his art and stimulated his voracious reading of religion, philosophy and science. After flirting with catholicism in the early 1940s, he was confirmed in his atheism by the destructiveness of the second world war, which for him reached a horrifying culmination in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Thus, in the mid to late 1940s, he conferred biblical titles upon a series of desolate, post-atomic landscapes, where the absence of life was evoked by weirdly organic pieces of driftwood and elongated objects receding into the horizon. Deploying surrealist symbols in an indignant, heavy-handed manner, he followed the methods of Yves Tanguy and Salvador Dal, while eschewing the latter's theatricality.
During 1944–5, he began selling paintings to Victor Waddington, a Dublin art dealer and gallery owner then developing a market for modern art in the south. Waddington offered Johnson a gallery contract, allowing him to quit his job in 1946 and paint full time. He joined a cohort of northerners assembled by Waddington who exhibited together regularly, forming a modernist vanguard that dominated Irish art into the late 1950s. Moving to Dublin, Johnson exhibited regularly at the Waddington Gallery in group and one-man shows (1948–55) and in the annual Irish Exhibition of Living Art (IELA) (1947–58 and 1966–9). His work was also exhibited in Amsterdam, London and various American cities.
Both parties were at fault for his marriage's collapse, which was accelerated by his wife's mid-1940s affair with the painter Thurloe Conolly (1918–2016). After leaving Noelle and their two sons in 1949, Johnson struggled financially, with most of his modest income going to his estranged family. Maintaining a makeshift studio in a succession of tumbledown residences either in Dublin or the surrounding countryside, he became a semi-participatory observer of the city's dissolute, down-at-heel literary set, which sought refuge from stifling communal pieties in the pubs in and around Baggot Street. He enjoyed this doomed, subsequently celebrated clique, and also entanglements with various women attracted to him as an outsider and unbeliever. A tall man sporting an impressive mane, he was gentle and reticent in company, intense and introspective in private.
He disliked being associated with any particular method or school and rarely visited galleries or interacted with other artists. His work bore no relation to that of almost all his Irish contemporaries, Louis Le Brocquy (1916–2012) and the early Colin Middleton (qv) being the sole exceptions. Whereas Irish modernists generally dwelt on indigenous subjects, Johnson deplored parochialism, and his metaphysical wastelands jarred with Ireland's prevailing tradition of playful landscapes. He cherished Ireland nonetheless, both for what he termed its people's maverick undertow and for nurturing his universal vision by uprooting him from England. Combining great skill in handling paint and colour with rigidly controlled brushwork, he achieved an austerity of execution that was much admired by fellow artists, but made him an acquired taste for Irish art lovers.
This fixation on technique probably arose from his lack of a conventional art education. Somewhat derivative, yet peculiarly unclassifiable, his style was always evolving, as he methodically deconstructed new methods and influences before remaking them in his own gloss. In the late 1940s he moved towards the abstract cubism of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso by flattening the picture plane and simplifying form, as shown to fine effect in the 'The clown' (1950; TCD art collection). He also adopted a subdued palette of mainly yellow and grey tones, and subsequently began varying the textures of his previously smooth canvasses. The use of wit became more pronounced, sometimes to leaven the pathos, sometimes to distance himself from the superficially romantic nature of certain of his settings.
During the early 1950s he explored the expressive potential of the human form, most notably in portraits of families and circus performers redolent with isolation, strangeness and unease. He won praise from previously hostile critics by injecting some emotion and lightness of touch into his brush strokes, with works such as the sincere and tender 'Bird in the hand' (1950) marking a real departure. His growing repute delivered useful sidelines designing stage sets and department store fabrics, and a more lucrative one holding art classes in his mews off Leeson Street. Most of his students were wealthy ladies pursuing a hobby, but others such as Anne Yeats (qv) and Cecil King (qv) were serious artists who benefited from this alternative to educational institutions teaching only academic painting methods.
Receiving a grant from the Arts Council, Johnson bought a Leica camera and took 2,000 black-and-white photographs of inner-city Dublin (1952–3). His painterly eye unveiled the decrepit, vaguely surreal beauty of a place suspended in time, before pent-up modernity submerged Dublin's decaying Georgian core in concrete, steel and glass. Blending into the surrounding ruins, his adult slum dwellers exude pathos, their children an iridescent charm, while black-robed priests and nuns are a conspicuous, subtly powerful presence. Through the inventive juxtaposition of objects, architecture and people, he elevates his subjects without excusing or idealising the pervasive squalor. Selections of these photographs were exhibited on a handful of occasions, and some 150 were published in book form in 1981. The two sets of negatives are held in the RTÉ archives and in New York's Museum of Modern Art.
Johnson acknowledged that his art was overly cerebral, but his mid-1950s attempts at exuberance came across as forced and muddled, contributing to a prolonged period of self-doubt during which he destroyed most of his unsold early work. Never interested in fame and fortune, he distrusted Dublin's 'easy acclaim', and in 1957 returned to England, where he put off painting, drank too much and drifted through various lodgings and odd jobs in a state of boredom and renewed impoverishment. He met and married Margaret Pettigrew-King, and came into a small inheritance, which he used to buy a small farm in Suffolk. Margaret's dislike of their harsh rural lifestyle led them to sell the property in 1964 and move to London.
He had resumed painting after a six-year hiatus, but destroyed almost everything until 1970. By then he was satisfied that he had replaced his surrealist and cubist preconceptions with a more unselfconscious approach, though he continued thereafter to cull much of his output. During the 1970s, he experimented with acrylics, collage, etchings, monoprints and photography, and painted either quasi-abstract figures in landscape or pure abstracts. Having fallen out with Waddington, who had also relocated to London, he met with little success in either selling or exhibiting his work. He was forgotten in Ireland and lived in straitened, solitary circumstances with his wife in a London council flat.
In 1978 he found a new patron in Tom Caldwell and staged a succession of one-man exhibitions in Caldwell's Belfast and Dublin galleries, presenting a warmer, more lyrical idiom, purged of the angst that formerly permeated his outlook on life. Although critics viewed his masterfully constructed mix of collages and cubist-style paintings as old-fashioned and all too frequently lacking emotional immediacy, his profile and sales in Ireland experienced a modest revival. The works of the 1940s and 1950s were considered his best and have fetched good prices, but he reacted scornfully when art dealers suggested that he mimic his early style. In 1983 he published The other side of six, an idiosyncratic, factually ambiguous memoir written in hit-and-miss Joycean prose. Exhibiting more sporadically from the late 1980s due to worsening health, he concentrated latterly on ink drawings, and had faded back into obscurity by the time he died in London on 1 August 1999.
The most polished and intellectually profound Irish-based painter of his generation, Johnson was also among the least successful, owing to his reclusive nature and attendant disregard for fashion and local sensibilities; less than a handful of his paintings hang in public galleries. Yet his distinctive contribution to post-war Irish art along with his acclaimed photographic rendering of a bygone Dublin means he is likely to remain a figure of historic, if not artistic, interest.