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Nevill Johnson 1911-1999; Artist, Writer, Photographer

Eoin O'Brien
The Lilliput Press


From the Introduction "To walk against the wind"

I HAVE WRITTEN previously that Nevill Johnson was an enigmatic artist within whom three personas struggled for expression: First, and dominant, was the painter in Johnson; then closely related but distinct, there was Johnson the photographer; and finally, Johnson the writer had to be content to let visual portrayal take precedence over literary expression. Whereas this assessment is correct in apportioning priority as judged in terms of the magnitude of work, it rather ignores the fact that there can be not only immense beauty in smallness, but moreover terse and sparing utterance can be a mirror to the soul. When I came to assembling the writings of this remarkable man I was forced to acknowledge not only how good a writer he was (I scarcely expected less having known him for nearly three decades) but I also became aware of how much his writing permitted access to the whole process of creativity, from its inspiratory beginnings to the painful business of execution and onwards to the often annihilating demon of deprecation and doubt. So although Johnson will always (and rightly) be best known as a painter, we should examine his literary works, if for no other reason than to learn a little of the forces that found precedence of expression on canvas.

The first literary work in Nevill Johnson 1911-1999, Artist, Writer, Photographer is the re-publication of the autobiography The Other Side of Six, which he and I revised shortly before his death. This fascinating book was published by The Academy Press in 1983 but never achieved the recognition it deserved as the Academy Press went into liquidation after a small initial print run and the book, despite good reviews, effectively disappeared from circulation. It is timely, therefore, that this vibrant account of an interesting life is reissued for the first time thirty years after it was written.

What, we might ask, does the title signify? This question has remained an unanswerable mystery since the book was first published. That is until a short story written by Johnson in 1975 came to light recently. In the story, bearing the same title as the book, we find the protagonist Dr Lucius Kithogue, a physicist and 'maverick thorn in the flesh of academic scholars ... for his penetrating attacks on formal and mathematical logic', propounding his development of an enantiomorphic faculty, which, by providing him with a mirror image of his mind, allows him entry to a strange world 'where time is quantized and non-lineal' - in short 'the other side of six'. Other than providing the enigmatic clue to the meaning of the title, the short story is entirely fictional and its importance to the autobiographical elements in Johnson's life is to illustrate his close affinity with science and the metaphysical nuances of existence. Reading the story I was put in mind of Denis Johnston's. Nine Rivers from Jordan, the chronicle of a journey and a search in the physical and temporal sense, and its sequel, the Brazen Horn - a metaphysical odyssey in which a spiritual catharsis changes Johnston utterly, and in expiation of which he states: 'The fact that one sometimes may be in error in one's rapportage of the current verbiage of Science does not necessarily mean that one's general conclusions are nonsensical.' A sentiment that Nevill Johnson would have applauded!

In characteristic manner, the autobiography The Other Side of Six commences a little earlier than is generally customary with the genre. 'Beneath the drawers, beneath the soft epidermal boundary of abdominal skin, not yet identified, named or recorded, lay a pulsing blastoderm. And there came to term in July 1911, under the sign of Leo, in one of the hottest summers on record, a blue-eyed web-toed left-handed boychild.' The rebel that was to be so integral a part of Johnson's personality throughout a long life staked a claim early in childhood: 'Our little band, dressed in Norfolk jackets and Eton collars wave Union jacks — all but me, that is. It seems that at the age of seven I already felt a need to stand aside, to walk against the wind.'

Schoolboy days are portrayed in The Other Side of Six but it may be that photography was beginning to fascinate Johnson at an early age and we find among his papers poignant photographs of St Chad's in Prestatyn. The book is replete with poignant insight into a sensitive soul; take for example the death of his mother:

I watched the little plane dwindle in the Snowdon-guarded dusk and turned back lonely to the hospital, sensing that my mother had grown weary of fighting. We sat quiet for a time, her hand warm in mine, her eyes open and clear. Then her voice startled me for she addressed me as Tom [my brother]. I held my peace, playing false like Jacob. 'Keep an eye on Nevill', she said, 'He's so wild.' She then turned her head on the pillow, her hand tightening on mine for a moment — and the puzzled life went from her. [But sadness at his mother's death was eclipsed by the death of his beloved cat.] Devotion on another plane, no less valid, led to the death of the family cat, old friend and inexhaustible progenetrix. When she approached her first confinement many years before I had prepared a layette of boxes lined with paper and old jerseys; but it was company she really needed and when she came to me in the night for help I stretched my arm from the bed to comfort her. Thereafter she came always to me on these occasions. Following my mother's death I made a lengthy stay in Paris, leaving the cat in care of friends. She was not there to greet me on my return. I was told that, pregnant again she had wandered distraught seek¬ing me. Eventually she developed a fever and died. The vet opened her and found oversized kittens held back long beyond their term. Loyalty again.

And soon women, who would find him as attractive as he found them, are never far away: 'Of course there were girls, it would be something to report if there were not. The world was waiting for me - and I for my role. It soon presented itself. At sixteen I was unexpectedly seduced at the hands of a long-legged chorus girl named Olive.'

Johnson's fascination with science, or more aptly his admiration of the physiology of human existence that facilitates execution of the wonder known as art, so evident in the short story bearing the same name as the autobiography, recurs throughout the book:

It is said that the brain is a slightly alkaline electro-chemical computer working on glucose at 35 watts. Be that as it may I stand always in awe of the depth and staggering range of man's memory, astonished by this bulging cornucopia — as I am daily surprised that, without heed or thought I stand upright, or wake in the morning. Thus, within the convolutions of my brain lie the sight and smell of unnumbered mornings, of seals sunning on the rocks and plover on the wind; of streams tumbling turf-brown from the flanks of Errigal; of Muckish glistening and Binyon, the lords and ladies of Donegal and Down.