Nerys Johnson (1942-2001)

Purple tulip with turquoise stem and black/blue background 
14 March 2001 
gouache on paper 150 x 75 cm
National Museums & Galleries of Wales, Cardiff

Nerys Johnson never wanted to do anything else but paint.  But she was born severely crippled with arthritis (she never knew what it was like to run) and had to earn a living to sustain her extremely curtailed life. She became a curator in the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle and then at the DLI Museum and Arts Centre in Durham, putting on wonderfully exuberant shows of other people’s art, but always wanting to get on with her own work. 

She only managed this full-time once she had she retired early on medical grounds, but by then the disease had seized up most of her joints and she could only work with help.  In her last few years she didn’t even have the strength in her fingers to lift a sheet of paper. She could, however, just wield a brush. 

This has bearing on her work, for her paintings and drawings, which had begun large and packed with bravura, became of necessity smaller and smaller – brilliant stained-glass windows, miniature in size but monumental in scale and meaning.  Like all great art, they are about the two feelings that haunted her in her body’s prison: love and isolation.   

For more information please visit Nerys’s website:

Two leaves: New Zealand flax VII  
18 November 2000 
gouache on paper 285 x 155 cm
Victoria & Albert Museum, London