Work of Nerys A Johnson

Work of Nerys A Johnson

NERYS A JOHNSON (1942-2001)

Nerys Johnson’s work is a rare gem in the history of British Art.  Her intense, vibrant flower studies are immediately recognizable and distinct.  They are more like miniature stained glass windows than paintings.  Their power comes from the forging of opposites: delicate, glowing petals and leaves are chained in darkness; the sense of movement in them – feelings of growing, flowering and dying – are rendered timeless by the clarity of her design; the minute and intimate are made monumental by her measured abstraction.  These are condensed images of passion far removed from botanical painting, more influenced by Matisse and Mondrian than Redoute and McEwen. 

Nerys’s paintings are as deeply spiritual as the crucifixes of Craigie Aitchison, besides whose work they deserve to rank.  Aitchison was another contemporary, individualistic British painter whose work, like that of Nerys, has been edged into the back seat by the ascendancy of Conceptualism, but whose paintings, when the clouds clear, will be seen to shine like beacons.  When that happens, the work of Nerys Johnson will take its proper place in the canon of British Art.  She is a little master, a Samuel Palmer not a William Blake, a Thomas Jones not a J.M.W. Turner; hers is a small oeuvre but an utterly genuine and deeply rewarding one.  So she will be rated as a colourist beside her friend Bridget Riley, and their works will be hung together in any noteworthy showing of the modern era of British art.

There was a reason why Nerys’s oeuvre is small, numbered in hundreds, rather than thousands, of watercolours and drawings.  Though her sole ambition, from childhood, was to be a painter, she was constrained for most of her life by a debilitating form of arthritis, which prevented her pursuing a professional life as an artist.  She earned her living as an art gallery curator, and became an extremely distinguished one, providing many artists with their first public shows.  Early retirement gave her the time to paint, though with the passage of time she could only hold a brush with difficulty.  The vigorous abstractions of her youth were gradually transformed into large-scale studies, mainly of flowers and foliage, many of them beautiful, in media which included charcoal, pen & ink/wash/watercolour, and increasingly, gouache. These led, through a remarkable process of distillation, to the jewelled illuminations of her last years.  

Nerys’s long career in art galleries, and her commitment to showing the best art to the widest possible public, led her to direct that the artwork she created and left in her studio be sold and the proceeds used to help public galleries acquire works by living artists.  The Nerys Johnson Contemporary Art Fund assists institutions to acquire paintings by living artists, whose work is distinctive in its strong and imaginative use of colour.  Nerys’s own works and her generous Fund are fitting tributes to an outstanding artistic career. 

Julian Spalding                                                                                                             February, 2014

For further information about Nerys’s work and the Nerys Johnson Contemporary Art Fund see           

Nerys A Johnson – Artist and Curator (1942-2001)

Nerys Ann Johnson was born on 1 October, 1942, in Colwyn Bay, North Wales. Her family later moved to Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, where she grew up. For several years she was treated in hospital for childhood arthritis. In 1961, she went to study Fine Art (Painting and Art History) at Durham University, and made her home in the North East. In 1967, after teaching Art for two years, she was appointed Keeper of Fine Art at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle. In 1970, at the early age of 28, she became Keeper-in-Charge of the Durham Light Infantry (DLI) Museum and Art Gallery. There, she created a seemingly endless stream of high quality, original exhibitions of contemporary art, including Henry Moore: Head-Helmet, an exhibition to mark the 150th anniversary of Durham University (1982); Moments of Being, a touring exhibition curated for the Arts Council (1988), and A Fresh Look, a touring exhibition of drawings and paintings by 20th century British artists selected from the collection of Middlesbrough Art Gallery (1992).

Nerys had drawn and painted during her childhood, continuing as time allowed throughout a demanding career. Her initial subject matter consisted mainly of abstracts and landscapes. She continued to work on landscapes and townscapes, but became increasingly absorbed in drawing and painting flower and plant forms. In particular, she focussed on flowers, following their metamorphosis as they budded, bloomed and faded, deploying line, colour, contrast and form to create striking, near-abstract, compositions. She said of her work: “in a drawing, the sense of movement, structure and rhythms is expressed through the marks and lines; in a painting this is achieved through the balance and contrast of colours. Whether the flowers are grouped in a riotous bunch or [depicted] singly, my aim is to reveal the particular feeling of that image – a potent lily – a burst of spring or the battered remains of winter”.

Julian Spalding, museum director, now writer, said of her work: “You immediately recognise a Nerys when you see one, whether it’s a large, radiant charcoal drawing of a spray of tiger lilies, a watercolour … or one of her last gem-like flower paintings which are as brilliant and small as fragments of stained glass”.  Her output during the last decade or so of her life was prodigious. Of her unwavering commitment to her art, Bridget Riley was to say: “Nerys always points due North”.    

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Nerys’s work is held in various public collections, including the Victoria and Albert Museum, the National Museum of Wales, the Laing Art Gallery, the Ashmolean Museum, the Fitzwilliam Museum, the Walker Art Gallery, the Whitworth Art Gallery, and the Arts Council Collection. It is also to be found in many private collections in the UK and abroad.

Throughout her life, Nerys was committed to ‘art for the people’, and she gave instructions that her artworks, left in her studio, be sold and the proceeds used to help public galleries acquire paintings by living artists. The charity Nerys Johnson Contemporary Art Fund, was established for this purpose. Information about the Fund, Nerys herself and images of her work (including works for sale), is available at

Nerys Johnson Estate                                                                                                     November 2014