And here is just one story about one picture
On the Trail of Robert Johnston RI – Commercial and professional artist
My interest in Robert Johnston was fired when my son Richard Austen Etheridge inherited a framed print of the West Body Shop at Longbridge after his paternal Grandmother died. The picture is a lithograph taken from an oil, painted by Johnston and originally displayed in the Boardroom of the Austin Motor Company. This copy, taken from the original oil, had been given to his grandfather by the management of British Leyland in 1975, to mark his retirement. The first thing Richard noticed was that an image in the windscreen of an Austin A40 at the picture’s centre was different in style to the other operator images in the print. What was of more interest was the close resemblance his grandfather bore to the image in the car’s windscreen. Equal conviction was shared by others, when a wider audience who knew Dick Etheridge, all supported the view that it must have been added to the print by an unknown hand, probably around the time of his retirement. But who was this person?
As an experienced research, academic my first port of call was the internet, where I found little or nothing useful concerning Johnston, but after a rearrangement of the search criterion I discovered the site of the ‘Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours’. On this site, there was just one reference to Johnston as a member, but this reference also alluded to an exhibit titled ‘A Paris Street Scene’, subsequently found elsewhere on the site. After a search of Births, Marriages and Deaths in the UK, nothing of relevance was found either, but another search of other art societies resulted in a location address for Johnston’s home in a village near Banbury in Oxfordshire. Quite fortuitously, there was also a reference to a house sale on an estate agent’s internet listing that showed a picture of the house itself, also the property postcode. Despite further trawls nothing else was discovered, so it seemed I had come to a dead-end.
As I had been collaborating with author and journalist Martyn Nutland (martynlnutland.com), on research for his biography of Leonard Lord, the former Managing Director of the British Motor Corporation, it crossed my mind that he might be able to shed some light on Johnston’s Paris connection; primarily because he lived there. So, I subsequently passed on to Martyn the raw information about Johnston with a hopeful optimism.
Martyn being a journalist, has a keen nose for a story and he was intrigued by the sparsity of information and so set about the task of following up on the estate agent’s details. This allowed him to establish dates concerning the sale and some other slight leads. He also looked at an image of the lithograph and was fascinated by the difference between the stylised images of the line operatives and the image seen in the windscreen. His wife Dolores, an art historian, also cast a professional eye over the images and concurred with the view that Dick Etheridge’s image had most probably been added to the lithograph. This information led to a search for images of the original oil painting that was by then in the hands of the British Motor Industry Heritage Trust (BMIHT), now the British Motor Museum, at Gaydon in the UK. I was astounded to find that the trust’s internet picture of the original ‘oil on board’ also contained the windscreen image. So, the mystery deepened!
Meanwhile, Johnston’s commercial work and his Austin connection had also been found in books about the Austin and internet sites, whilst yet another lead came from Trevor Holland, an Austin Ex-Apprentice who revealed that he owned some original art work by Johnston that had been used for Commercial Vehicle publicity. Martyn, by then was breaking new ground in Paris, that was ultimately to lead to a virtually complete biographic, including key dates and locations during his life.
The Paris connection comes up trumps
Martyn working from this sparse information, was to discover a wealth of material about the man and his varied and diverse artistic works. But let Martyn tell you in his own words:
The man who drew austin
He’s Hopper without the menace; Dame Laura Knight without the social comment. Yet for all his portrayal of the workaday life and leisure of a nation, and although Robert Johnston’s passion was painting the English landscape, this was not the part of his métier for which Johnston was acclaimed, if indeed he is acknowledged at all.
Robert Johnston was born in Glasgow in 1906, the eldest of three brothers. With his siblings William and Samuel, they were the children of an Irish father and Scottish mother who kept a newsagents’ shop in the area. By the time Robert was a teenager Britain had been struck by the post-W.W.1 economic depression. Along with many others, the family emigrated to Australia.
What formal artistic training Robert Johnston received would have been in that country. In later life, he vividly recalled a tutor who taught him the intricacies of vanishing point. It was probably at this time, assisted by brother Samuel, he made a foray into cinema art. Picture house murals were vogue at the time, promoted largely by South American artists, at first with a revolutionary theme, then as a means of social expression generally.
But for the Johnston’s, Australia did not prove a ‘promised land’. Both Samuel and Robert decided to return to Britain. By the mid-1930s Robert was back in London. He had worked his passage in the engine room of an oil tanker on the long-haul home through the Suez Canal.
Unfortunately, the economic situation in the mother country was little better than when the brothers had left. There were three million unemployed and Johnston himself was penniless and starving. The hungry, night-time, trudges through the streets of London were punctuated by gazing longingly through the windows of restaurants. Then late one evening two philanthropic diners invited the young man, whose face had been pressed to the glass, to join them for a meal.
By chance the two were advertising executives from Lucas, the internationally famous auto-electrics company. To what extent the voyage from Australia facilitated Johnston’s ability to draw ships and machinery is uncertain, but he was unquestionably a talented draughtsman and could draw accurately from memory. Some work for Lucas was the entrée to, notably, the Austin Motor Company, the facilitator being Jim Bramley, a Longbridge figure whose name will be familiar to many. There would also be work from other firms involved, to varying degrees, with transport. However, before Johnston’s career could take off, Britain had a war to fight. He applied to join the Royal Navy but having failed the medical was attached to the War Office camouflaging aircraft and military tanks.
But the work for which Robert Johnston is most remembered was for Austin. His first major undertaking was a sequence of as many as 10 industrial scenes in oil on wood for the boardroom. They are probably best dated by the cars portrayed on the production lines – most prominently an Austin A40 current between 1947 and 1952. At least five of the original pictures are known to survive with the British Motor Museum (formerly British Motor Industry Heritage Trust) and a lithograph taken from one is in private hands… (Refer to Dick Etheridge’s fascinating research, above, on this aspect.)
The Midlands motor industry, dominated by Austin and, to a lesser extent Lucas, soon became Johnston’s principal source of income and relative security, recently married to a girl he had met in London – Margaret Sudul. They had moved, first to Erdington, in Birmingham and then, in 1949, to the village of Brailes, near Banbury in Oxfordshire.
Johnston proved his resourcefulness by converting as a home for them, a row of three cottages that he named Grove End. There was an avenue of trees beside a crazy-paved terrace and a large oak dining table Johnston made himself. Yet the handiwork did not extend to plumbing into the mains water supply and all who visited remembered the troublesome pump, little knowing at the time, that three dead rats festered in the system. They were only removed when the house was eventually connected to the public supply.
The artist’s studio was on the upper floor and it was here, working as long as 16 hours a day and sometimes through the night, Johnston perfected his technique; most successfully in water colours, but also oils. His influences were Dégas and, appropriately, the most famous commercial artist of all, Toulouse Lautrec.
Johnston chose to lie on the floor seeking his inspiration and developed a style that left small areas of the parchment blank. And he had the fiery temper that those of Irish descent are sometimes reputed to possess. However, history does not record the reaction when someone, not appreciating the style, ill-advisedly pointed out the bare parchment. Margaret survived; advising on colour: ‘more green’ or ‘a bit more blue’!
By the early 1950s work for Austin was consuming three days a week, seated in the studio of chief stylist, Dick Burzi. Johnston did not rate his superior particularly highly as a creative artist and their differences probably led to the relationship becoming less formal after about 1956. From then on Johnston worked ad hoc. But not before he had produced more than 20 sketches for the firm’s golden jubilee in 1955. They tell Austin’s story through the half century by portraying, mostly, the English good life, and were embodied in a highly desirable and beautifully bound commemorative album presented to Austin dealers.
In his personal life Johnston was endowed with an enormous social conscience. Often a disadvantaged stranger he had met in London, or a character whose tale of woe he had listened to on a train, was brought home to Grove End and briefly accommodated and entertained, frequently on the Italian dishes he and Margaret adored. And the couple extended equal generosity towards members of their own family.
Judging Robert Johnston’s standing as an artist is highly subjective. Yet as early as the low 1940s he was achieving formal recognition. Between 1943 and 1945 he was a three-times summer exhibitioner at the Royal Academy with the paintings Warwickshire ford (1943). [Possibly this is Eastcote ford near Solihull], A Snowy Day (1944) and 21st January (1945).
In 1946 he exhibited twice with the New English Art Club, although he was never a member, as is sometimes thought. The works were Curries Farm and Le Majestic. (The subject for this last – hotel, cinema, boat – is, as yet, unestablished)
Exposure in NEAC circles is often viewed as a stepping stone to election as a full Royal Academician. Johnston was never so honhoured. It was a source of bitter disappointment. We can only guess as to why he was excluded. It may be, and however unjust it is to categorise him as, essentially, a commercial artist, that in the elitist art world he was defeated by snobbery.
In addition to the New English Art Club, Johnston was a member of the Royal Society of Marine Artists, joined in the late 1940s, the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours from 1954 and the Royal Institute of Oil Painters from 1963. And it seems likely he was involved in all these organisations over a long period. He displayed Long Distance Trader and North Atlantic Barquetine at the RSMA in 1976 and followed up with Skiff at Loch Fyne.
On the commercial art scene, Longbridge apart, Johnston was most prolific as a railway and shipping artist but regrettably, here again, he never quite made it into either the ‘top link’ or took a ‘blue ribband’!
The 1930s were the golden age of rail art, epitomised by the London North Eastern and London Midland and Scottish (LNER and LMS respectively) companies; but the dismal post-nationalization era of the late 1940s was where Johnston worked. ‘Minehead’ and ‘Tunbridge Wells’, portrayed for posters on what had been the Southern Railway were just two, the latter being unmistakably ‘Johnston’ with much of the boldness but attention to detail of the Austin pictures.
Other poster work that would have been very much Johnson’s métier included illustrations for the Associated Humber Line, a shipping organisation formed originally by two of the privately-operated railway companies, and latterly run by the British Transport Commission. He also drafted at least one design for The Orient Line – a beautiful portrayal of the 1948-built liner RMS Orcades passing under Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Another important shipping client was the Norwegian operator Fred Olsen.
Often Johnston discarded convention. For example, the covers of the Austin Magazine – the car company’s owner/driver journal – was weaned away from vehicle illustrations. Johnston introduced idyllic English rural scenes or architectural heritage. A favourite was a thatched house the detail of which was made possible by an extended period of study after the craftsman repairing the roof of Grove End fell off the ladder and broke his leg!
Book illustrations were another area where Johnston was prolific. He was among those artists described as ‘the best’ by the Odhams monthly John Bull, where he was required to encapsulate Post-War British life alongside such literary luminaries as Agatha Christie and Nicholas Monsarrat.
Work followed for Percy Westerman, a master of the ‘ripping yarn’ with a patriotic military or naval flavour. Terence Cuneo, perhaps the most famous of all the 20th century painters of technical subjects and historical events, was among Johnston’s colleagues for the 180 books Westerman produced over 50 years.
Not quite as prestigious were covers for Stephen Mogridge, best known for books for teenage girls. However, there were also juvenile thrillers and Johnston was in his element for The Wreck Hunters and The Empty Boat Mystery, both from 1958.
By the mid-1960s photographs had largely replaced artwork in Austin’s car brochures but Johnston continued his own artistic work in Britain and other parts of Europe including Yugoslavia and particularly France. By 1975 he was accommodating and training budding artists at Grove End while Margaret, a highly accomplished cook, taught them, separately or in parallel, the culinary arts.
It was work they intended to continue in Villenne sur Seine in France, not far from Monet’s famous studio at Giverny. But sadly, although they moved there, Robert Johnston died in 1983. Margaret succeeded him by seven years. Both are buried at Villenne.
It is probably fair to say Johnston was always on the cusp of major recognition. A similar fate befalls many talented commercial artists. However realistic the brochure pictures, however dynamic and clamorous the industrial scenes at Austin, they were always going to be submersed in the greater picture. The railway and shipping posters are about the expectations of travel; the book covers about adventure and romance; not about some ephemeral concept of the creative artist.
“Johnston was still living in England in 1975 when the seemingly ‘rogue image’ was thought to have been created. After an intense examination of the Oil and the Lithograph, the general conclusion drawn is that the face in the windscreen of the A40, is Dick Etheridge. As it also appears in the original oil held by the British Motor Museum, it must have been put there around 1975 before the presentation to Dick Etheridge. But such alteration would most surely have needed management endorsement. Dolores Nutland has expressed an opinion that the windscreen image is in the style of Johnston, but different to the more stylised faces he has used in his other Longbridge factory scenes. So, did Johnston put it there in 1975”?
His signature appears in two places at the bottom right corner of the Lithograph, which is unusual to say the east.
‘We would like to think he did, but you the reader, must make up your own mind’
Robert Johnston ri – biographical details
Born: Glasgow in 1906 – eldest son
Parents: Irish father and Scottish mother – Glasgow Newsagents
Siblings: Two younger brothers, William and Samuel
Emigrated: Family went to Australia around 1920 with all three children
Returned: Robert worked his passage back to London sometime in the middle 1930s
Occupation: Largely self-taught artist using innate talent enhanced by some formal training in Australia. Poverty stricken in London, he was eventually introduced to Joseph Lucas by two of its executives, whom he met quite by chance
Later career: Worked as freelance contract artist for many companies, including Austin, where he was employed on a wide range of work throughout the middle decades of the 20th century. He did intermittent work at Longbridge into the 1970s
Retired: To ‘Grove End’, his house in Oxfordshire where he trained budding artists before finally moving to France, settling at Villenne sur Seine
Died: Villenne sur Seine, in 1983. (Interestingly, two years before Dick Etheridge died in 1985 aged 75, just a few months the younger)
Buried: In Villenne sur Seine, where his wife was interned with him in 1990
© Dick Etheridge and Martyn Nutland