A prime mother: A brilliant artist, ever patient parent to four boisterous children… and, when she was hit by Parkinson’s, devoted herself to its charity. As Charlotte Johnson Wahl dies aged 79, a farewell to Boris’s mum
Under gentle rays of late-summer sun, at an outdoor café, a touching moment of familial affection unfolded on Saturday afternoon.
In the centre of the scene, at the bustling lunch tables of Chiswick House and Gardens, was Charlotte Johnson Wahl, a slight, frail figure, wearing a sunhat, happily surrounded by her four offspring.
How poignant that moment must be now. For it was the last time Boris Johnson and his siblings — journalist Rachel, entrepreneur Leo and former minister Jo — were able to enjoy such an occasion with their mother.
Yesterday it was announced that Charlotte Johnson Wahl had died ‘suddenly and peacefully’ at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, on Monday, aged 79.
Yesterday it was announced that Charlotte Johnson Wahl (pictured with her four children Leo, Boris, Jo, Charlotte and Rachel) had died ‘suddenly and peacefully’ at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, on Monday, aged 79
Amid the cacophony of colour and personality that make up the public profile of the Johnson family, the matriarch of the formidable clan cut a remarkably quiet presence. No political forays of her own and certainly no appearances, unlike her ex-husband Stanley, on I’m a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here! On the contrary, she preferred to avoid personal publicity.
But make no mistake: the mother of four was hugely influential on her son who became Prime Minister. Speaking at his first party conference in 2019, Boris Johnson described his mother as the ‘supreme authority’ in the family. ‘She taught me to believe strongly in the equal importance, the equal dignity, the equal worth of every human being on the planet,’ he said.
While her eldest child may have enjoyed his most colourful moments on the political stage, Charlotte was an ‘astonishing self-taught artist’ who let her colours explode through her artwork, which has hung on walls ranging from her son’s office to galleries around the world.
A friend once described her as ‘the genius of the family’, and there is no doubt she was fiercely talented — she was the first married female undergraduate at her Oxford College, Lady Margaret Hall, where she was studying when she met first husband Stanley Johnson.
British writer and journalist Rachel Johnson with her mother artist Charlotte Johnson Wahl
Over the years, she was open about her struggles with depression and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), which resulted in a lengthy stay at the Maudsley psychiatric hospital.
She was just 40 years old when she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and became a stalwart campaigner for advances in treatments for the condition which shaped more than half her own lifetime and framed a quiet, yet extraordinary career.
Last night her daughter Rachel told the Mail: ‘Anybody who met her was struck by her astonishing sweetness of spirit and spark, combined with a wonderful mischievous anarchy and individualism.
‘What I think people were astonished by was her really quite remarkable refusal to complain. I never heard her complain once in 40 years. She was a portrait painter and a portrait in courage herself.’
Born in May 1942, Charlotte Fawcett was the daughter of barrister Sir James Fawcett, who was president of the European Commission for Human Rights in the 1970s, and his wife Bice.
Pictured: Boris Johnson and his mother Charlotte Johnson Wahl in 2014
Growing up, she lacked confidence, once telling Tatler magazine: ‘I often overheard my mother say, “Don’t ask Charlotte to do it. She’ll get it wrong.”
‘I felt I was the least favourite of my parents’ children. However, I was Nanny’s favourite, so it was all right.’
Painting would become, and remain, an outlet. She was presented with a box of oil paints by her father at the age of five, discovering this was something she could do well. ‘Once I started I couldn’t stop,’ she said in a 2015 interview. She won a place to read English Literature at Oxford despite a somewhat chequered school history, having been expelled from her convent school at the age of 16.
It was at Oxford she met Stanley, at a dinner to celebrate his winning a poetry prize.
She was engaged to another man but Stanley wooed her anyway. ‘I was engaged to somebody called Wynford Hicks, who was extraordinarily beautiful to look at but actually quite boring,’ Charlotte told Tatler in 2015. ‘Anyway, at this dinner I was between two geniuses — Alasdair Clayre, a very brilliant fellow of All Souls who used to sing medieval songs to a lute, and Stanley Johnson.
‘Afterwards, Stanley sent me a note asking if he could come to tea and go for a walk. So a few days later we went for a walk and he suddenly said, “Love is sweet. Revenge is sweeter far. To the Piazza. Ah ha ha har!”, which made me laugh so much I fell in love with him.’
They married eight months later at Marylebone register office.
Stanley was offered a Harkness Fellowship to study for a year in the U.S. and apparently said that their relationship would be over if she didn’t accompany him. It meant Charlotte dropping out of her degree course.
‘Mother assumed he was a dreamy poet,’ Rachel would later write. ‘My glorious father is capable of deep emotion but that is not the sunny, uncomplicated face he chooses to show the world.’
It was the start of a peripatetic existence. Boris, who was born in the U.S., owes his name to his mother’s travels. She once recalled how, after an uncomfortable Greyhound bus journey to Mexico City while she was three months pregnant, a man named Boris Litwin, with whom they were staying, gave them two first-class plane tickets for the journey back.
‘I was so grateful, I said: “Whatever the baby is, I shall call it Boris.” ’
She later changed her mind and called him Alexander Boris de Pfeffel. He was ten months old when they returned to the UK and Charlotte resumed her studies at Oxford while pregnant with Rachel.
As the young family expanded (youngest Jo arrived in 1971), so the moves continued because of Stanley’s work with the World Bank, then the European Commission. In total, they were uprooted 32 times.
By 1973, after moving to Brussels, Charlotte’s mental health was flagging. She was suffering not only from depression but from crippling OCD, which led to a mental breakdown and admission to the Maudsley, where she stayed for nine months. ‘I lost it completely,’ she would later say. ‘It was the strain. The marriage. The constant moves. The longing to paint. The constant presence of now four unruly children.’
Charlotte’s condition was so severe, her hands would bleed from compulsive washing. A glimpse into how difficult that time was (she was one of the first patients to be treated with aversion therapy, which involves confronting compulsive behaviour in order to overcome it) is provided by one of the 78 paintings she completed while a patient: it is called It Has Not Worked and is a self-portrait.
So productive was the time artistically that she staged an exhibition in the hospital’s gallery.
Discharged, she returned to Belgium and went straight into another clinic in Flanders, before being reunited with the children she had sorely missed. But all was not well in the marriage and in 1979 Charlotte and Stanley divorced.
She touched on the difficulties in the marriage in an interview with Tatler, saying: ‘Things with Stanley were very difficult . . . he had become very interested in the environment, he travelled a lot and he enjoyed his travels and then a dear friend told me about that . . .’
The unsaid being allegations of womanising. And there were the claims, made in a book last year, that Stanley ‘broke her nose’.
Charlotte ended up in hospital after she ‘flailed’ at her then husband and he flailed back, it was alleged.
Family and friends of Stanley reportedly insisted that he deeply regretted the incident and denied he had been violent on any other occasion.
Independent, Charlotte refused to accept any money from her ex-husband and eked out a living by selling her paintings, which she created in a studio in their Notting Hill home.
Although Boris was educated at Eton, times were not always easy.
‘Once I sent the boys to the market to buy a turkey for Christmas and they came back with a capon because turkey was so expensive,’ she later said.
‘So Christmas dinner was rather small that year. It was like something out of Dickens.’
She met American professor Nicholas Wahl, the man who would become her second husband, in the same year she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, marrying in 1988 and moving to New York, which inspired her to paint a critically acclaimed series of cityscapes. She had already made her name with portraits, her sitters including Joanna Lumley and Jilly Cooper.
But she was widowed in 1996 and moved back to London.
Her passion for painting was not diminished by Parkinson’s. As the illness progressed, she would simply steady herself with a walking frame as she worked.
During an interview in 2008, she said: ‘I try to paint every day if I possibly can, though I have to go to the hospital a lot. I still manage to paint, though my arm will suddenly do a movement which is completely unintentional and that almost brings me to tears.’
As Rachel told the Mail yesterday: ‘She went into a care home for the last two months of her life and they were absolutely amazing. They had to go into a lockdown last week and they sent us a picture of her painting in a garden.
‘I sent it round the family and one of her sisters said, it reminded her that my mum had said if she couldn’t paint, she would die.
‘Really what she wanted to do with her life was paint. But she never let painting get in the way of being a wonderful mother and grandmother. She was utterly giving of herself.’
Charlotte was a tireless supporter of Parkinson’s UK and an active campaigner in the Kensington and Chelsea Support Group. As she learnt more about her illness, she discovered that OCD can precede Parkinson’s and that tiredeness and depression often go hand in hand with it.
In 2013 she underwent ‘deep brain stimulation’, with electrodes attached to her brain and a battery in her chest, in an attempt to reduce the jerky movements characteristic of the disease. Yesterday, Parkinson’s UK chief executive Caroline Rassell said the artist’s work ‘made a real change to the lives of the 145,000 people in the UK living with Parkinson’s and their loved ones’ and ‘for that we could never thank her enough’.
Proud of all her children — she has described Boris as ‘soft-hearted’ — she was once asked if she minded Wikipedia referring to her as ‘Boris’s mum’. ‘I am just a mother proud of her children. And I do not mind being referred to [in Wikipedia] as Boris’s mum; it’s a testament to his achievements,’ she replied.
That is not to say she always agreed with her offspring. It is not known how she voted in 2019 but prior to that, she had spoken of having never voted Conservative.
When Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership contest, she admitted: ‘Part of me is thrilled because it’s back to the politics I remember when I was young.’
The only time she is known to have asked Boris to use his influence in support of her causes was when he was Mayor of London. She asked him to ensure that buses didn’t move until everyone was sitting down, because ‘if you’re disabled, often you fall’.
A retrospective of her art was staged in 2015, when curator Nell Butler said: ‘Charlotte Johnson Wahl is arguably the most talented of the extremely able Johnson clan.’
Yesterday Nell said: ‘She was driven to put things on paper. It was a language for her, a way of communicating the emotions and colour inside her head. She was a loyal friend to all who knew her.’
Rachel Johnson said: ‘If I had one wish in my life, it would have been to restore her health. But Parkinson’s did make her into the person she was as well.
‘Everyone is so proud of her and feels so much gratitude to her. I just feel remarkably lucky to have had her as a mother.’
Source: Read Full Article