In the eyes of critic T. E. Dickson, she painted enchanting drama; to Terence Mullaly, she was a gentle, wayward poet of paint…unsullied by fashionable trends…pursuing a highly personal course. But while the vibrant reveries of Gwyneth Johnstone’s work mark her as one of her generation’s greats, she remained throughout her life a perennial outsider.
‘A Party’, oil on board
Daughter of the notoriously talented Augustus John, niece to his painter sister Gwen, much of Johnstone’s childhood was spent in the shadows cast by the vivid personalities of her father’s family. By her late teens she had decided upon a career in art, inspired in part by the modernist canvases of Christopher Wood and the work of Paul Klee, and began her studies at the Slade School in 1933.
Untitled, pen and ink drawing
As with her domestic life, however, Johnstone’s early development was muddled by her many colourful yet conflicting teachers and influences. Though from her father she inherited both a tremendous industry and vitality of brushwork, in her time at the Slade she struggled. A season in Paris studying under the Cubist painter André Lhote only further confused matters, and while artist friends such as Mary Fedden, her husband Julian Trevelyan, and contemporary Alfred Cohen were hitting their stride, Johnstone continued to search for her own painterly voice.
‘…Arcadian shepherds and rustic lovers…’ – more fairytale figures in another untitled pen and ink drawing
It wasn’t until the 1950s, under the sensitive tutelage of Cecil Collins, that Johnstone’s personal style began to fully emerge. As if emboldened by the prolonged and varied progress that had preceded them, her paintings and black ink drawings from this time on burst forth with colour and dreamlike intensity. Her subjects – Arcadian shepherds tending their flocks, rustic lovers and Mediterranean fishermen – captured something of the pastoral bucolia of William Blake, but in their otherworldly depiction they were quite their own.
In A Party, the unique power of Johnstone’s voice resonates through each musical blue, each pop of vermillion red. Attendees topped with abstract hats and daisy-chain wreaths become fairy tale revellers, framed within the cave-like room by floating mirrors and golden candle brackets. Illuminated by rich layers of colour, the scene becomes at once formal and fantastic, intimate and expansive.
Finally settling in Norfolk after whirlwind years flitting between London, Provence, and the Spanish Costa Blanca, Johnstone died at the age of 95, a Bohemian character to the last. In her enigmatic paintings – as exemplified in this canvas – she brought magic to the otherwise everyday.