On an Indian summer night in Westminster last month, a glittering array of writers, mandarins, artists and politicians gathered for the opening of an exhibition by a remarkable painter unknown to most people. She is Charlotte Johnson Wahl, who happens to be the mother of Boris Johnson.
In his speech that evening, the London Mayor excoriated the art world’s grievous error of taste, whereby “the country has prostrated itself to pickled sharks and unmade beds. Yet we have done far too little to celebrate painters who actually believe in rewarding the viewer with light and colour and, above all, emotion.”
And he added that the exhibition would correct a second great error: “That the pushier, more sharp-elbowed members of this family have so far claimed the media attention” – a dig at himself, his sister Rachel and his father Stanley. “Tonight, we redress that imbalance. The most talented member of the family by far is Charlotte Johnson Wahl.” She was beside him, blinking in the unaccustomed limelight.
“It was quite overwhelming,” she says. “I’m not used to receiving praise or recognition, and, looking around the gallery, I was astonished at how hard I must have worked all my life Aged 73, Charlotte has over the years produced more than 2,000 striking paintings. But her work has been under the radar of the art world and public because she was so hard up that much of her output has been sold privately.
The vibrant and often startling paintings on show chronicled the people and places in her turbulent life, with her family regularly at the heart of the picture. Charlotte herself was not born a Johnson. Her father, Sir James Fawcett, was a British barrister and member of the European Commission for Human Rights.
Left: back row, Boris and Leo; front row, Jo, Charlotte and Rachel
“I find it extraordinary that I should have married a Tory and have four Tory children,” she says. “I’ve never voted Tory in my life. My parents were very socialist – rich socialists with three cars and two houses, but they were socialists in the days when that happened.”
One of five children, Charlotte took up painting at the age of five when she was given a set of oils. She quickly found it enabled her to compete with her siblings for her parents’ approval. “I could handle oils well and I immediately began to paint. It was something I could make my own. None of the others could paint.” At the exhibition, Boris Johnson described his mother as “strong, compassionate and incredibly funny”. Those characteristics are on display in her paintings – together with a much darker and sadder side of her life and loves.
She went to Oxford to read English at the age of 18 in 1960. “I had a rather rich time,” says Charlotte. “I had a lot of different men.” Then she met Stanley Johnson. He was an ardent swain and swept her off her feet, partly because he could make her laugh but also because he’d won the Oxford poetry prize and she saw him as a poet. In fact, as Stanley puts it, “I was a rugger bugger – a front row forward. Just bash on through.”
They were married within four months. Charlotte was forced to leave Oxford as women’s colleges in those days didn’t accept married undergraduates. But, exceptionally, she was allowed back to sit her finals with, as she puts it, “baby Boris in the pram outside and Rachel already in my tummy”.
Charlotte’s painting My Four Children Drawn from Memory
They were joined within a few years by two more brothers, and Charlotte was now living with four children under eight in Stanley’s remote Exmoor farmhouse and what she calls “a series of dotty au pair girls”. Her husband was often away on business as an environmental consultant and at one stage away for over a year.
“It was just terribly lonely,” says Charlotte. “I often didn’t know where he was. I sometimes got a postcard from him, but he didn’t ring up – one didn’t in those days. It was desperate. Many people wouldn’t have stood for it.”
The family were also regularly moving house and even country. In 1973, the Johnsons moved to Brussels, where Stanley had a job with the European Commission. There was a lively social scene, which Charlotte depicted graphically in her paintings. In one, in the background of what looks like an elegant dancefloor, nude dancers cavort. I ask Charlotte if that was artistic licence. “People were not unclothed literally, but they were figuratively. Brussels was a place where lots of them were having affairs, and if they weren’t they wanted to.”
At that time things were going badly wrong both with Charlotte’s marriage and her mind. She felt browbeaten by her husband. “We weren’t getting on at all well, and whenever I stood up for myself he was very difficult and could be very frightening. He was unfaithful. He just did what he wanted and it hurt me terribly.”
Stanley says about that period: “Well, you know, things are what they are. People do what they have to do and then they move on. And if you can move on and look back and see not just the rosy uplands ahead but the rosy path behind – that’s the way I prefer it.”
Another cause of the marital friction was the development of Charlotte’s severe phobias and obsessive compulsive disorder. “I used to have to turn round twice before going into a room; I’d have to straighten up cushions 12 times; I became frightened of food and mess, and I’d wash my hands over and over again until they bled. Suddenly I had this terror of food on my clothes. Life got impossible. With four children you can imagine the amount of mess and food around. And anything like a bit of omelette on my sleeve would completely panic me.
“I became very anxious about the children – that they must have a bath and have clean clothes and they mustn’t put food on the walls and on the stairs. And I became like a terrible witch who thought of nothing but cleanliness. Stanley wasn’t very sympathetic about my anxiety and it was awful for the children. I felt so guilty towards them because I couldn’t care for them as I was so terrified. I really couldn’t cope and I had to go into hospital.”