The Daily Telegraph
Charlotte Johnson Wahl
Painter with an original vision who was the ‘genius’ of the Johnson family and mother of the PM
CHARLOTTE JOHNSON WAHL, who has died aged 79, was a gifted painter and the mother of the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and his siblings. Warm and empathetic, with a sharp intelligence and a somewhat radical outlook, Charlotte Johnson Wahl was for the doctor and journalist James Lefanu “the genius of the family”. Boris Johnson credited her with teaching him the “equal value of every human life” and with being the fount of moral authority in the family. He liked to claim that she had voted Leave in the Brexit referendum.
Self-taught, she frequently painted in bright colours and in a style which was often naïve, with a debt to the Fauvists. Her work was at its most powerful and raw when it drew on her struggles with physical and mental illness. She had suffered from Parkinson’s Disease since middle age and had earlier spent time in a psychiatric hospital.
Many of her paintings of that time, such as It Has Not Worked (1974), now in the Bethlem Museum of the Mind, depict her with outstretched hands and have an air of resignation to them. One of her most poignant memories was of her young children leaving after visiting her in hospital.
Although she shunned publicity more than did some of her children, her work gained a keen following, and in 2015 she had a retrospective at the Mall Galleries in London. Art was her living for much of her life; she also painted portraits (for instance of Joanna Lumley) and later Vorticistinspired fantasy cityscapes.
One of five children, she was born Charlotte Maria Offlow Fawcett in Oxford on May 29 1942. Her father James (later Sir James), then serving with the RNVR, was awarded the DSC for sinking an Italian destroyer. He afterwards headed part of 30 Commando, which specialised in capturing enemy technology and had been set up at Ian Fleming’s instigation.
By training, however, he was a lawyer. When peace returned, he helped to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and between 1972 and 1982 was president of the European Commission of Human Rights.
Charlotte’s mother, known as Bice, was the daughter of American academics, her father being a palaeographer of Latin manuscripts and her mother the official translator into English of the works of Thomas Mann.
Many of Charlotte’s siblings were fiercely clever – her only brother became a distinguished journalist with The Economist – and she felt herself the least favourite child of her parents (though the favourite of the nanny). Her confidence suffered further when she overheard her mother saying: “Don’t ask Charlotte to do it. She’ll get it wrong.” But she discovered at the age of five that she was the only one in the family with a talent for painting.
The Fawcetts, who were Catholics, were, she recalled, “rich socialists”, or at least liberals, and she grew up in St John’s Wood. She was sent to a convent school, Mayfield, where her sister was a nun, but Charlotte was expelled. After being tutored in London, she won a place to read English Literature at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.
Before going up in 1961, she became involved in many of the radical causes of the day. She worked at the anti-colonial Africa Bureau and sold tickets for a Beyond the Fringe benefit show. A supporter of nuclear disarmament, she went on an Aldermaston March and was at the protests in Trafalgar Square that became a flashpoint for civil disobedience.
At Oxford, her art was featured in Isis magazine, but in 1963 she met Stanley Johnson at a dinner at All Souls. Johnson, who had recently won the Newdigate Prize for poetry, captured her heart with verse: “Love is sweet / Revenge is sweeter far / To the Piazza/ah ha ha har!”
This made her laugh so much that she fell in love and in 1963 they married at Marylebone registry office. He had won a Harkness fellowship to study writing in America, and she left Oxford to accompany him.
Their first child, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel, baptised a Catholic despite his mother’s earlier professed atheism, was born in New York in 1964. He was named after Boris Litwin, the father of a friend, who had met them in Mexico and been so appalled at the notion of the heavily pregnant Charlotte returning to New York by bus that he paid for their air fare.
Over the next decade, the Johnsons had three more children: Leo, who became a consultant; Rachel, the journalist, broadcaster and editor; and Jo, a former government minister. They were also to move 32 times.
At first, they returned to Oxford, where Charlotte Johnson was probably the first married female undergraduate at her college.
They then had spells in Washington, Primrose Hill in north London, and Brussels as Stanley Johnson worked briefly for MI6, at the World Bank, and then from 1973 at the European Commission and as an MEP. The family’s principal base, however, was a farm on Exmoor, though there was little of the romance of Lorna Doone about it.
Stanley Johnson was often away travelling and, with the help of au pairs, Charlotte was largely left to raise the children, who had inherited their father’s competitive nature. She later admitted that she had tormented herself with her conviction that her husband was being unfaithful when absent. Tom Bower’s biography of Boris Johnson, published in 2020, also contained allegations of violence.
By the mid-1970s she had developed a phobia of germs and concomitant OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). In 1974 she was admitted to the Maudsley hospital, south London, where she was in the care of Hans Eysenck and treated with then innovative – and harsh – aversion therapy. Subsequently, at 40, she was diagnosed as suffering from Parkinson’s disease.
Charlotte and Stanley Johnson were divorced in 1979. Three years later, she met Nick Wahl, an American academic whose field was modern French politics. They married in 1988 and she moved to New York, prompting her to begin painting her cityscapes. Wahl was much liked by her children, but in 1996 he died of cancer. She returned to London, settling in Notting Hill.
Although suffering from depression and tiredness linked to her condition, somewhat alleviated by an operation in 2013, which provoked a brain haemorrhage, Charlotte Johnson Wahl enjoyed ballet and singing in a choir. Latterly, she had taken pains in interviews to maintain that the public image of her better-known offspring was at odds with their true nature.
She is survived by her four children.