I first met Nevill Johnson in the late 1980s when he was exhibiting at Tom Caldwell's gallery in Fitzwilliam Street. We found much common ground – life, beauty, literature, art and black and white photography. On that evening he gave me a copy of his autobiography, The Other Side of Six. Fascinated as I was by his painting with its many moods and occult imagery, as I read his autobiography I came to realise that I had also befriended a wonderful writer.
Our friendship grew over the years and I visited him regularly in his studio in London. I began to explore not only his approach to painting but also what he had written and there was much. We often discussed Dublin, which he loved so dearly and his sojourn there is recorded with pathos and affection in The Other Side of Six. Johnson came to Dublin from Belfast in 1949 as "a lone and rather bewildered man of thirty eight". He was to spend five years in Dublin where he became one of the most significant artistic figures in what may now be described as the Baggotonian movement.
First recorded by John Ryan in 1975 in Remembering How We Stood, and a year later in the very personal and sensitive Dead as Doornails by Anthony Cronin, its scale can be glimpsed by listing just a few of the many poets poets: Patrick Kavanagh, Oliver St John Gogarty, Thomas MacGreevy, John Montague and Louis MacNeice; among the writers: Con Leventhal, Samuel Beckett and Brendan Behan; in theatre Denis Johnston, Micheál MacLiammóir, Hilton Edwards, and Alan and Caroline Simpson of the Pike Theatre; in painting and sculpture: Jack Yeats, Patrick Scott, Louis Le Brocquy, Mainie Jellett and Cecil Salkeld, and in music Brian Boydell and John Larchet.
Or as Johnson was to put it: “I stepped out to join a weird company; a throng of crazed polemicists, smart Alecs, winking know-alls, jokers and gentle men: In the pubs of Hartigan, McDaid, the Bailey and Byrne’s, O’Dwyer, O’Neill and Mooney’s on the bridge and after nighttime Powers and poteen, there were the characters – apple cheeked O’Sullivan, Paddy Kavanagh, Augustan headed Behan and old Liam O’Flaherty, and “Myles feeding our vanity and sanity in the Irish Times’.” Add to this the background figures, such as Harry Kernoff “rising every morning from his bed into his hat”, and it is small wonder that one wag seeing Johnson approach his group exclaimed “O god, there are too many of us left”.
The pubs of Baggotonia were seen by Johnson as sanctuaries where sanity and peace prevailed: “I make no apology for a dissertation on pubs, the Powerhouse and the Tomb. The world of Na Gopaleen’s PLAIN MAN, fleeing for a time the matriarchal strap … In the pub lies anonymity, a refuge from the unquenchable self-generating aposeopessic regrets and daydreams of discarded wives.”
In 1952, Johnson received a small grant from the Arts Council that enabled him to buy a second-hand Leica. Armed with his camera, and accompanied by the ever-loyal Anne Yeats, Johnson began work on a series of photographs of the people and places of the "real" Dublin of that time. In The People's City, the artist in Johnson sensed in Dublin what Dubliners themselves could not sense and what the planners of the next decade were oblivious to, namely that this capital microcosm had been suspended in time, its people as though from another age had been untainted by the evils of affluence that were contaminating the denizens of other capitals of the world; an aura of innocence and purity pervaded the place.
The last decade of Nevill’s life was of necessity preoccupied with health, or rather lack of it. “On shaky legs I entered the winter of my seventieth year, a sad bag of muscle and gut, humbled and prepared to listen. ‘Take it easy’, they said, ‘and you’ll last a few years yet’.” He lasted quite a few years and painted away continuously and true to previous form destroyed much of his work. I visited him regularly during this period, advised him on medical matters and we discussed how best he could stay where he was with social support rather than being subjected to institutional care.
One day as we sipped beer in the Churchill Arms, we discussed the importance of removing colour from painting – “it is,” he said, “more important than getting God out of life. There will come a time when colour will be unfashionable – colour is rather feminine – nothing wrong with that but the day of the ‘colourist’ will pass, as has the day of God.”
On the literary front I was able to help Nevill complete his last literary work, the Tractatus Pudicus, which is published for the first time in Nevill Johnson 1911 - 1999: Artist, Writer, Photographer. This is perhaps best described as a poetic dialogue in which Johnson philosophises on the human condition, and in the process gives interesting insights into his development as a painter. It also exudes his abhorrence of war.
On my last meeting with Nevill in the Middlesex Hospital some days before he died, he looked from me standing at his bedside to the catheter draining him like an hour-glass that would alas never be inverted, and with eyes of sadness, sadness in the realisation that his time had passed and mine not quite so, we parted on a quote from the Book of Samuel: “How are the mighty fallen and the weapons of war perished.”
I promised Nevill that I would see that his art and writings were not forgotten when he was gone. This posthumous mission has taken some time and it is not over. First, there were the paintings. I asked Dickon Hall, the art historian, who had been a friend of Nevill and who admired his art, to join me in writing a book about his painting and Nevill Johnson: Paint the smell of grass was published in 2008. Next came the writings, a selection of which I assembled in Nevill Johnson 1911 - 1999: Artist, Writer, Photographer was published this year by Lilliput Press. In addition Galway Johnson, Nevill's son, has donated a number of his father's paintings to University College Dublin to establish an annual scholarship to support aspiring artists, and his papers, correspondence, diaries, and memorabilia have been donated to the James Joyce Library in UCD to enable future scholarship on this remarkable polymath.
Eoin O’Brien is a cardiologist and professor in the Conway Institute in UCD. He has published many scientific articles on hypertension and has written a number of books on medical historical subjects, which include Conscience and Conflict: A Biography of Sir Dominic Corrigan, and A Portrait of Irish Medicine. He has written an acclaimed biographical study – The Beckett Country: Samuel Beckett’s Ireland and The Weight of Compassion & Other Essays was published in 2013 by Lilliput Press.