A Conversation with Charlotte Johnson Wahl
I walk around the quiet Bethlem grounds with intense curiosity, captivated by the Hospital’s centuries-old, dark history of madness. I gaze in awe at Cibber’s statues ‘Melancholy’ and ‘Raving Madness’ on show in the foyer of the Hospital’s Museum (‘Bethlem Museum of the Mind’) and climb the staircase to the displays on the first floor. The doors slide open and right before me hangs Charlotte Johnson Wahl's ominously titled painting ‘It Has Not Worked’.
The self-portrait screams anguish and pain. The face is haunted and the over-sized, outstretched hands give the distorted figure a Christ-like aura. The psychiatric hospital setting adds poignancy to the hand written title and the powerful image lingers long after I leave. Days later, I share my experience with the artist herself as we sit in her Notting Hill flat, surrounded by her many paintings, sketches, brushes and paints.
"I am glad to learn that it is the very first painting you see," says Charlotte with a grateful, somewhat shy smile, "but you know, it was done in such despair, you can see terrible sorrow and distress in this painting. It was painted in 1974 during a dark time in my life and a rather long stay at the Maudsley Hospital.”
“It was awful. I was trying to get rid of my rituals, obsessions, fear of dirt and dislike of food. I thought they could help me get rid of those obsessions but they couldn’t. Still, the title wasn't meant to be mean or to get at the Maudsley, it was just so terribly depressing.” Charlotte Johnson Wahl had spent nine months at the hospital that year. "They gave me canvasses and paints, which was just wonderful; I couldn't talk about my problems, but I could paint them."
The artist produced seventy-eight telling insights into her troubled psyche, paintings so powerful she was offered a solo exhibition at the Hospital's renowned gallery. “It was a success and I even sold a great number of the paintings," she remembers, “but there was always the pain of being away from the children who were little at the time.”
"This was the worst thing” she says with great sadness, her kind, soulful eyes looking directly into mine. “It was dreadful. I left Jo, my youngest, when he was still very little, and when I came back I felt like he didn't know me.” I tell Charlotte of my recent conversation with her son Jo, now 45, and of his memories of a “wonderfully happy childhood with a very busy mum looking after us all”, and she gleams. Jo Johnson is the current Member of Parliament for Orpington as well as the minister for Universities and Science.
He is an award-winning editor (including the prestigious Lex Column on the Financial Times), journalist and writer. Quite significantly, Jo is also brother to former Mayor of London (and now Prime Minister) Boris Johnson, environmentalist Leo Johnson and accomplished writer Rachel Johnson. All are stars in their respective fields, extremely talented and exuding great physical charisma.
“Yours is a thoroughly impressive brood,” I tell Charlotte. "That is very kind,” she replies, her voice slightly faint and a touch incoherent from Parkinson's disease, which has affected her for over forty years, "I am just a mother proud of her children - and to answer your earlier question, I do not mind being referred to (in Wikipedia) as Boris’s mum, it's a testament to his achievements."
"There was always painting in the house when we were growing up,” Jo tells me. “We always knew it to be part of who mum is. We are still surrounded by her paintings, and I am glad that the rest of the world gets to share them.” I ask Jo if his mother's pre-reality-TV openness about her mental illness was intrusive in any way, and he speaks of her possessing "great human understanding, and a great way of expressing it".
Painting has been a constant in Charlotte’s often turbulent life, from picturesque childhood oils of Leo, Rachel, Boris and Jo playing in the garden, Boris up a tree or the children with their father Stanley, to periods of mental ill-health and consuming anxiety where bold black outlines and vivid expressionism take hold. Charlotte painted through her 1978 divorce from Stanley Johnson, life in the U.S. with second husband Nicholas Wahl, his long battle with cancer and devastating death.
"She is merely, completely, un-selfconsciously herself," reflects curator Laura Gascoigne, “whatever the subject, be it insightful portraits, still life or engrossing huge urban landscapes”, one of which famously hung at Boris's office at City Hall during his tenure as London Mayor. Illness, though, has remained a force to be reckoned with.
As we speak, Charlotte drops her morning tablet, which her Parkinson’s stiff fingers find it impossible to retrieve, but she stands defiant, takes the tablet and - aided by her walking frame -takes slow steps towards her desk. There, with a big smile on her face, she gets to work on her latest piece.
She is an “undefeated” spirit, says family friend Nell Butler. She interrupted her Oxford studies to marry Stanley in 1963, but returned pregnant with her second child to sit the finals. As a divorced mother she supported herself through sales of her art (Jilly Cooper and Joanna Lumley are among her collectors), and when illness forced her to separate from her children she bounced back with relentless devotion and love.
"It's true that without her connections her work might not be coming to public notice now" says curator Laura Gascoigne, "but she did establish herself as a portrait painter long before her children were famous. In fact, that is how she supported herself after her divorce from Stanley, when they were still growing up. So she is an artistic force to be reckoned with."
Article written by Hannah Gal and originally published on medium.com
Two of Charlotte Johnson Wahl's artworks - "It Has Not Worked" and "Ask and Get No Reassurance" - are on display as part of the Museum's permanent collection.