Charlotte Johnson Wahl: Painter and Parkinson’s campaigner

Although she is often eclipsed by her more famous children, Johnson Wahl forged a career as a talented artist

Marcus Williamson
Wednesday 22 September 2021 00:00
<p>Charlotte Johnson Wahl had a profound influence on her children, including Boris Johnson, the current prime minister </p>

Charlotte Johnson Wahl had a profound influence on her children, including Boris Johnson, the current prime minister

While Charlotte Johnson Wahl, who has died aged 79, is best known as the mother of the current prime minister, she also found renown during her lifetime as a campaigner on behalf of those with Parkinson’s disease and as a talented painter.

Her curator and friend, Nell Butler, who organised an exhibition of her work at the Mall Galleries in 2015, described the approach she took to her art: “At every stage, Johnson Wahl paints with unswerving honesty and power. She speaks for all the emotions of the human heart: sadness, confusion and rage – but also humour, joy and an intoxicating irreverence. Above all, these paintings reveal a deep understanding of the complex human condition, and an empathy for our struggle. A tough but ultimately redemptive journey.”

Charlotte Fawcett was born in Oxford in 1942, the daughter of Beatrice Lowe and Sir James Fawcett. Sir James was a barrister and former president of the European Commission for Human Rights. Charlotte was educated at Mayfield and Westminster Tutors.

She met Stanley Johnson in 1962 at a party in Oxford to celebrate his winning of the Newdigate poetry prize. At the time she was engaged to another man, and she sat next to Johnson at the dinner. When Johnson invited her to join him on a date soon after, they quickly fell in love and were married within the space of a year.

Although Johnson Wahl had been offered a place at Oxford, Johnson announced that he was off to America on a Harkness fellowship, so she decided to postpone her studies to accompany him. Her first son, Alexander (Boris), was born in New York in 1964. However, she later returned to academia, graduating with a degree in English as the first married woman at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, to do so.

Her move to New York inspired a change in subject as she began to paint the striking cityscapes

Johnson Wahl had struggled with mental illness for much of her adult life, living with obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression. She recalled in an interview with Tatler: “I had become extremely phobic. I was terrified of all forms of dirt. In 1974, I had to go into the Maudsley as a patient of [psychologist] Professor Eysenck. While I was there, I did 78 paintings and they gave me an exhibition.” The exhibition, taking place after her six-month period as an inpatient at the psychiatric hospital, was a sell-out.

Some of her earliest subjects were still lifes and portraits, pictures of her own children either as individuals or within family groups. Following her divorce from Johnson, she married Professor Nicholas Wahl in 1988 and moved once again to America. Living in New York, she took to painting striking and colourful cityscapes, finding inspiration in the forest of skyscrapers around her.

Johnson Wahl continued to paint following her diagnosis with Parkinson’s at the age of 40

She exhibited widely. Most recently, in October 2020, the Bethlem Museum of the Mind showed Johnson Wahl’s paintings as part of a series of exhibitions by artists who express and cope with their conditions through their artwork.

Johnson Wahl was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1982, aged 40. However, she did not allow the illness to prevent her from painting, using a walking stick to steady herself while she worked. Caroline Rassell, the chief executive of Parkinson’s UK, paid tribute to her campaign work for the charity, saying: “As well as being a valued member of our Kensington and Chelsea support group, Charlotte was also an active campaigner. She happily and generously used her voice and influence to back our campaigns, whilst also raising awareness of the condition by speaking about her experience. She also supported us by hosting an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, using her wonderful artistic eye to fundraise.”

Her family said that she had died “suddenly and peacefully” at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington. Boris Johnson once said, in a speech describing her influence on him, that she had taught all her children “to believe strongly in the equal importance, the equal dignity, the equal worth of every human being on the planet”.

She married Stanley Johnson in 1963 and they divorced in 1979. Her second husband, Nicholas Wahl, died in 1996. She is survived by her sons Boris, Leo (a consultant and broadcaster), Jo (a life peer), and daughter Rachel, who is a writer.

Charlotte Johnson Wahl, artist and campaigner, born 29 May 1942, died 13 September 2021