Nevill Johnson: the photographer
To those interested in the Irish art scene of the middle years of the twentieth century Nevill Johnson’s will be a familiar name. He moved from the vibrant artistic coterie of Belfast to that of Dublin in 1947 where he found a convivial circle of artists and writers. His paintings of the period were often inspired by elements of the city but were gradually evolving into a more sophisticated surrealism. At various stages during his long life he changed his approach and style of painting as he evolved new modes of interpretation. Perhaps this explains his sudden diversion into the medium of photography, which occupied his enthusiasm for the best part of two years, beginning in 1952. He had used photography for some years to record his paintings and family activities and did so for most of his life, but this was different, he obtained an Arts Council grant for the purchase of a Leica camera and set about a carefully planned series of photographic excursions. He, possibly with the encouragement of Anne Yeats who accompanied him on many of these journeys, may well have recognised that the Dublin he knew so well would be subjected to change and ought to be recorded but to regard that as his purpose in creating this body of work would be to miss the point. Certainly the record is there, but of what? Johnson’s images go well beyond the superficial, they explore life, the inner life of the place including the apparently inanimate and particularly the lives of people. Echoes of his canvases can be observed in some of his graphic photographs of buildings such as, McCaul’s Cottages, Richmond Row, and Sarah Place, off Conyngham Road, these can be seen as abstract compositions but somehow they suggest real life, rather different to the bleakness of his painting The Cottage.
Poverty is depicted in so many of his images such as the tenement hallway in Charlemont Mall, where his appreciation of lighting and the interpretive potential of the photograph are splendidly applied. As he walked about his eye regularly fell on small details sometimes offering surreal form and texture, as in sections of street furniture or the strange steel objects in a butcher’s window, or perhaps just a fascinating juxtaposition of ironwork, brick and lace curtains. He was unable to resist the absurd, such as sections of railing in the middle of nowhere and serving no function. His sense of timing, vital in such work as this, can be enjoyed in the picture of a bearded man passing a sunlit opening in a wall at Smithfield, captured in exactly the right position with a rather gloomy doorway ahead of him and a poster declaring The Foreign Press is a National Menace just behind him, a person less inclined to be worried by that claim would be difficult to find.
Johnson’s images of the people are exceptional, so often he captures real joy amongst people who are obviously poor but making the best of their lives within communities that function as small villages within the great city. Somehow Johnson brings us into the lives of these people, in so many it is possible to imagine the nature of a discussion such as that of the two elderly women wearing hats chatting on the Quays, so engrossed in conversation that they seem unaware of the photographer who was very close to them. Images such as this last in memory and are as worthy of wall space as his painted work, as with so many of his photographs. He was not oblivious to the world of children also, in his pictures we understand the universal ability to have fun in the most deprived surroundings, we also see the love and dedication of their parents in fitting them out neatly and often standing nearby keeping an eye on their wellbeing. There is of course a darker side to be observed amongst the undernourished with stunted growth evident in some of the images.
When he had covered the subjects and districts as planned the project finished for good, he had made his point. The Dublin of the time has been interpreted for posterity, captured in all its moods, in the rain, in sunshine, in decay but above all with an expression of a lively citizenry displaying the hope and potential observed by this sensitive artist amidst what for so many seemed a drab lacklustre period.
Nevill Johnson: the painter
Nevill Johnson occupies a unique position amongst Irish artists of the twentieth century, as an Englishman who made his home in Ireland for almost twenty-five years and produced some of the most defining and incisive images of his adopted country made by any of his Irish contemporaries.
Johnson arrived in Belfast in 1934. Although he had been keen to attend art college his father had insisted on a career in business, but Belfast appears to have liberated Johnson as an artist. Working during the day and painting alongside John Luke at night he began to become known as a painter and sculptor, although none of his works from before the 1940s survive.
Johnson’s earliest extant works painted in Ulster are arguably the most original and modern images of the country. ‘Linenscape’ was commissioned by Edwin Bryson, a successful linen manufacturer; it is a remarkable synthesis of the mechanised process used in that industry with a stylised depiction of the dramatic Antrim coastline. ‘Kilkeel Shipyard’ also uses a dynamic formal abstraction to integrate the shipbuilding that was another significant aspect of Ulster’s industrial success with a more traditional image of the Mournes.
The surrealist-inspired imagery and the dramatically modernist vision of these works leads to the first paintings that made Johnson’s reputation in Dublin. The barren, post-atomic wastelands, populated by biomorphically shaped driftwood and found objects that Johnson collected on the shores of Lough Neagh and Strangford Lough, were painted in Ulster as a response to the despair and cynicism that Johnson felt as a result of the human destructiveness of the Second World War, but they were amongst the first passionately anti-war works to be exhibited in Dublin.
Johnson’s dialogue with Dublin had begun before he even moved there permanently around 1946. ‘Byrne’s Pub’ was probably painted around 1943-44; it is reminiscent of the stage set for an expressionist drama and it is unusual in Johnson’s work in containing a clear social narrative. Perhaps there is an autobiographical element in the work, although it is also possible that it also contains a barbed comment at the Dublin bohemian set who celebrated bars such as Davy Byrne’s, which was around the corner from the Victor Waddington Gallery. Harry Kernoff’s ‘Davy Byrne’s from the Bailey’ was painted in 1941 and might well have been known to Johnson, whose own work could almost be seen as a response to it.
Another painting that appears to pre-date Johnson’s move to Dublin but that provides a more considered and independent voice on the city than any of his Irish contemporaries is ‘Theresa’, probably exhibited in Belfast in 1946 as ‘Mater Doloroso’. This image of a young shawlie, the weight of whose absent baby is still visible in her arms, sheltering at the side of St Patrick’s Cathedral remains powerful today. Johnson was strongly anti-clerical all his adult life, apart from a brief period when he studied to enter the Catholic Church before abandoning it, and this painting is arguably the most significant work of this period in Ireland expressing the social effects of the closeness of state and church in and the damage this could cause to the most vulnerable.
Johnson’s affection for Dublin does, however, come through clearly in his painting of that name. His sympathy was always with the powerless and dispossessed, those who were firmly outside the establishment, and he appears in his paintings and photography to have seen these as the true possessors of the city. ‘Dublin’ shows a city of tottering, decayed elegance, fragile yet seductive. Johnson’s painting ‘Belfast’ appears to have been painted after he had left that city and is quite different from ‘Dublin’, providing obvious comparisons. The painting occupies a very shallow space with no illusion of depth, and its uniform, geometric and almost featureless rigidity clearly expresses Johnson’s dislike of the buttoned-up conventions and restrictions he came to associate with the city.
There is no doubt that Johnson looked back on this long period spent in Ireland with affection and nostalgia; there are more paintings that date from his later years living in London that refer to specific Irish subjects than those that date from the years he actually spent there. These paintings have passed beyond his earlier anger at social injustice or the excitement at surrealist re-imaginings of traditional landscapes and industrial identities; they evoke the time of Johnson’s discovery of a relaxed, expressive and liberated life and the places that fostered his artistic evolution. His legacy to Ireland is a collection of paintings and photographs that examine, criticise, explore and celebrate its landscape and its cities, its culture, industries and society, in a manner that no other artist of the time achieved.
Nevill Johnson. The writer
I have written previously that Nevill Johnson was an enigmatic artist within whom three personas struggled for expression. “First, and dominant, was the painter in Johnson; then closely related but distinct, there was Johnson the photographer; and finally, Johnson the writer had to be content to let visual portrayal take precedence over literary expression.“ Whereas this assessment is correct in apportioning priority as judged in terms of the magnitude of work emanating from one talent as against the other, it rather ignores the fact that there can be not only immense beauty in smallness, but moreover terse and sparing utterance can be a mirror to the soul. When I came to assembling the writings of this remarkable man I was forced to acknowledge not only how good a writer he was (I scarcely expected less having known him for nearly three decades) but I also became aware of how much his writing permitted access to the whole process of creativity, from its inspiratory beginnings to the painful business of execution and onwards to the often annihilating demon of deprecation and doubt. So although Johnson will always (and rightly) be best known as a painter, it would be remiss of us if we failed to examine his literary works, if for no other reason than to learn a little of the forces that found precedence of expression on canvas.
There are many poems, short stories and scripts for plays in the Nevill Johnson Archive, all of which may be prepared for publication in the course of time. The works selected for the The writings of Nevill Johnson (1911 – 1999) artist and photographer have been chosen simply because I regard them as being representative of his literary oeuvre. The re-publication the autobiography The Other Side of Six, which he and I revised shortly before his death is a fascinating work, that was first published in 1983 never achieved the recognition it deserved because the Academy Press went into liquidation after a small initial print run and the book, despite good reviews, effectively disappeared from circulation. The Tractatus pudicus, a previously unpublished poem, treats of life and experience, in manner of speaking that is personal and at times discursive in that the ego converses with the alter ego in existential rumination.
During the period at Wilby from 1962 to 1964 Johnson kept a journal, which unlike The Other Side of Six, is a very private chronicle without editing for publication, and, as such, is all the more valuable in permitting insight into the mind of the artist grappling with the artistic process, its joys and vicissitudes. Johnson’s son, Galway, has painstakingly transcribed the Wilby Journal from his father’s handwriting and I have edited the work – not by altering the content – but rather by selecting what I consider to be aspects of interest by order of subject so as to render the Wilby Journal suitable for publication. The proximity of nature, the seasons however harsh betimes, the soil and animals – dominant themes – provide it would seem an ambience conducive to artistic expression, or at worst to contemplating how best to go about painting.
Dublin, the city to which Johnson migrated in his peregrinations from Buxton and Belfast in the early post-war period, is undoubtedly the one place in which he found peace and contentment, at least in so far as those terms can have meaning for one destined to a life of searching for the indefinable, and alas unattainable, satisfaction that is tantalisingly proffered in the illusory fulfilment of the ever-present impetus of creativity. Of all the places in which Johnson propped up his easel, Dublin was to be the major beneficiary, not only in his legacy of paintings during this sojourn, but also in his photography, which found expression in Dublin: The People’s City. The foreword to the book is a vibrant piece of writing that says much about Dublin and the art of photography. ““As Koestler says, quoting Paracelsus, ‘God can make an ass with three tails but not a triangle with four sides.’ So, in my photo-hat I cannot build or rub out – only select, and accept. I cannot in words translate the signals; I can only hope to match the image.” It is fitting that it should be re-published to introduce the twenty photographs selected from the Johnson photographic collection in RTÉ Archives.
During his five years in Dublin Johnson became one of the most significant artistic figures in what may now be described as the Baggotonian movement. He came to love the city and its people and he anticipated the destruction that was imminent. ““The giantism of a cathedral carries its own logic: the awe we feel is generated for a purpose and is expected. But the gross brutality of many buildings of today exhibits a fearful insensitivity, many of them bearing all the ‘earmarks of an eyesore’, as the man said. We humans are dwarfed, bullied and chivvied around these monstrous structures, our stature denied, our pride ignored. And there are to be found no idiosyncratic corners for our surprise.” How prophetic would be his assessment of progress today! He deplored the destruction of community: “I suppose that in the name of growth and progress we must accept impersonal supermarkets and the din of traffic. So, it’s goodbye to the corner shop and goodbye to the slums of Gardiner Street; life there was certainly coarse, risky and ungracious. But surely the isolation of suburban estates breeds its own insults and despair.”
The final work in the The writings of Nevill Johnson (1911 – 1999) artist and photographer is an essay “Report from the wilderness – analysis and resolution of a long reappraisal”. In this essay on art and its relationship with science, which was first published in 1972, Johnson explores the relationship of art with science. The essay ends with an utterance that epitomises in many ways Johnson’s relationship with life and art: “Having, at cost, and with profit, developed an open-ended mind to assimilate today’s furiously accelerating signals, it is very possible that I will presently repudiate the foregoing.”