Gwyneth Johnstone: Painter whose dreamlike pastoral idylls eschewed fashionability

Friday 11 March 2011 01:00

Gwyneth Johnstone was one of those painters who rarely receive fashionable plaudits but whose pictures are treasured by owners and quietly slip into important public collections. The many significant buyers of her work included the Contemporary Art Society; public galleries in Hull and Sheffield; Essex, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire Education Committees; London County Council; Nuffield Trust; and that shrewd judge of a picture, the American actor and dealer, Vincent Price.

There were many suggested influences on Johnstone's work, ranging from 15th-century Italian painting, Christopher Wood, Cubism and Braque to Chagall, Klee and Modigliani. Whatever she absorbed, a Johnstone canvas has an unmistakeable lyrical innocence. The critic Terence Mullaly described Johnstone (pictured right by Mary MacCarthy) as "a gentle wayward poet of paint ... pursuing a highly personal course."

Her father was the painter Augustus John, her mother one of his models, Norah Brownsword. John's partner and muse Dorelia McNeill, then pregnant with another of Augustus's children, who would become the painter Vivien John, nobly offered to bring up Norah's baby at the family home in Dorset, but Norah declined. Although she turned down an offer of marriage from John Hope-Johnstone, a brilliant mathematician at Cambridge employed by Augustus as a tutor to his boys, she used the second half of his name as Gwyneth's surname.

Although brought up in Norfolk, Gwyneth did visit the exclusive, unconventional, artily dressed John clan at their new base, Fryern Court, Hampshire. However, she remained an outsider, according to the painter Nicolette Devas: "because her underclothes were made of Celanese and not the same cut as ours, she did not stand a chance. We never told her why."

Augustus had been a star student at the Slade and Gwyneth followed him there after St Felix's School, Southwold. During term-time she was based in London, periodically returning to Norfolk, as she did in later life. There was a strong bond between mother and daughter.

There is no obvious Slade influence on Johnstone's work. She shared a studio with her father for a time, however, and must have absorbed some technique from him. He painted a good portrait of her as a young woman and they shared a constant preoccupation with the challenge of the canvas. In Paris she attended the Académie Montparnasse, and took life classes with the mystical, visionary artist Cecil Collins at the Central School of Art.

Although Johnstone remained unmarried, for many years she enjoyed the friendship of a professional pianist, Francis Davies. He predeceased her by a couple of years.

The places where she painted were of great significance: the landscapes of the south of France and Spain feature constantly. She had a base not far from St Tropez, later buying a small house above Alicante. She took part in group shows, such as The Young Contemporaries, and with the Women's International Art Club of which, for a time, she was vice-president.

Her solo exhibition in the capital at Sally Hunter & Patrick Seale Fine Art in 1985 was a typical cross-section. In the catalogue, Giles Auty commended works "infused with a dreamlike exemption from the rules of time. Records of everyday acts such as posting a letter or feeding chicken and goats become vehicles for feeling and mood as well as for subtle combinations of beautiful and unexpected colour ... In many of Gwyneth Johnstone's rural outposts the clock has stopped forever at four o'clock on a summer afternoon."

David Buckman

Gwyneth Johnstone, painter: born Coltishall, Norfolk 18 June 1915; died Coltishall 8 December 2010.

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