The Daily Telegraph
Boris Johnson mourns for his mother
Prime Minister mourns the loss of woman ‘who instilled in him the equal value of every human life’
BORIS JOHNSON was mourning the loss of his mother Charlotte last night after she died at the age of 79.
Charlotte Johnson Wahl, a professional painter, died “suddenly and peacefully” at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, west London, yesterday, the family said.
The Prime Minister has described her as the “supreme authority” in his family and has credited her with instilling in him the equal value of every human life.
In 2008, Mrs Johnson Wahl said she felt protective of her eldest son as he tackled ever greater professional challenges. Later, in 2015, she described him as “soft-hearted”.
In 2019, at Mr Johnson’s first Conservative Party Conference as Prime Minister, he told delegates that they were entitled to ask about his core principles and ideals, saying his mother had taught him to believe in “the equal importance, the equal dignity, the equal worth of every human being on the planet”.
The daughter of the barrister Sir James Fawcett, who was president of the European Commission for Human Rights in the 1970s, Charlotte studied English at Oxford University, but interrupted her education to travel to America with Stanley Johnson, whom she married in 1963, and returned to complete her degree as the first married female undergraduate at her college, Lady Margaret Hall.
It was as a portrait painter that she made her name, with sitters including Jilly Cooper and Joanna Lumley, but painted other subjects, including landscapes, throughout her life and in 2015 was the subject of a retrospective exhibition at the Mall Galleries in London.
She told The Daily Telegraph in 2015: “My older sister was terribly clever, as was my younger brother. My parents didn’t know what to do with me so they gave me some paints and I turned out to be good at it. Once I started, I couldn’t stop.”
She and Stanley had four children: Boris, journalist Rachel, former Cabinet minister Jo and environmentalist Leo, before they divorced in 1979. The Prime Minister’s son Wilfred was her 13th grandchild.
Describing how the Prime Minister got his name, she once recalled: “When I was three months’ pregnant, we travelled to Mexico City by Greyhound bus. It was very uncomfortable, I was desperately sick.
“We stayed with a man called Boris Litwin, who drew me aside and said. ‘You can’t travel back like this, here are two first-class air tickets’. I was so grateful, I said, ‘Whatever the baby is, I shall call it Boris’.”
She changed her mind and called him Alexander Boris de Pfeffel, adding: “At Eton his friends discovered his foreign name and everyone started calling him Boris – even the beaks [teachers]. But everyone who’s known him since childhood calls him Alexander. If I were to call him Boris, it would mean something was really serious.”
During her marriage she suffered a mental breakdown and was admitted to the Maudsley psychiatric hospital where she stayed for nine months, later describing how she “lost it completely”, but used her time there to paint 78 pictures which catalogued her state of mind with raw creativity and honesty. After moving to a flat following her divorce, she refused to accept any money from Stanley and eked out a living by selling her paintings, later recalling that she was “very hard up”.
She married the American professor Nicholas Wahl in 1988, moved to New York and began painting cityscapes – which were the subject of a sell-out exhibition in 2004 – but was widowed in 1996 and moved back to London.
At the age of 40 she had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease but she never allowed it to stop her painting.
She told The Telegraph in 2008: “I try to paint every day if I possibly can, though I have to go to the hospital a lot. I still manage to paint, though my arm will suddenly do a movement which is completely unintentional and that almost brings me to tears.”