Although he claimed to be a landscape painter, William Johnstone was one of the first British artists to break with representation and paint uncompromising abstract pictures. Born in the Scottish Borders in 1897, Johnstone’s father was a successful farmer, and he was expected to follow this same path. However, the fallout from WWI made him determined to be an artist and, in 1919, he left farm life to study at Edinburgh College of Art.
In 1925, he left for Paris on a travelling scholarship awarded by the Royal Scottish Academy and studied in the city for two years, with the occasional trip to Spain, Italy and North Africa. Like many other Scottish artists in Paris, Johnstone chose to study under André Lhote, the distinguished French Cubist painter. In his studio, Lhote taught a different kind of Cubism- one which integrated an understanding and analysis of the Old Masters in relation to the modern style of Cubism. It was these teachings, combined with an awareness and exposure to the Surrealism prevalent in Paris during the late 1920s, that created the groundwork for Johnstone’s great abstract works later in life. His earlier work, such as Still Life by a Window, 1926, created during his time on the Continent, masterfully shows the blending of these distinctive styles. Johnstone’s almost academic awareness of space and shape is evident in the work’s composition, while his use of texture, wandering line and freer form simultaneously allude to the unconscious mind and the dogma of the Surrealists.
In 1931, Johnstone settled in London and began teaching. He taught for over thirty years, holding the prominent position of Principal at Camberwell College of Art from 1938-1946 and then at Central School of Arts and Crafts from 1947-1960. Johnstone developed a ‘Basic Design’ course, which derived inspiration from the Bauhaus, and hired a creative mix of artists, including Alan Davie, Anton Ehrenzweig, Patrick Heron, Marriane Straub, Earl Haig, Eduardo Paolozzi, Victor Pasmore, William Turnbull, Dora Batty, Naum Slutzky, and Dora Billington, which lead for spirited artistic discussions and debates. Johnstone ultimately received an OBE for his contributions to art education in 1945.
Johnstone suffered a nervous breakdown in the early 1940s, due to the stress and events surrounding the divorce from his first wife, the American artist Flora MacDonald. He was prone to episodes of depression, which produced dramatic shifts in the development of his work. But in general, from the late 1940s, Johnstone’s paintings became more colourful than the sombre works of the previous decade, the darker of which reflected the circumstances of the war and the unhappy twists of his own life.
From 1948-50, Johnstone spent time in America, first conducting a survey for London County Council and then as lecturer in Colorado. He enjoyed the concept of the Wild West and found inspiration in the geography of Colorado. During this time abroad, his works became sunnier, more golden, and his brushstroke freer. Johnstone eventually returned to the Borders and, in 1955, moved to Satchell’s Farm, Lilliesleaf, where he slowly turned to farming, working sporadically during holidays until his retirement from the Central School in 1960. It was after his retirement that he finally moved back to the Borders fulltime to concentrate on painting and farming. His work during this period became dominated by colour and expressionistic shapes, instead of line and form. Borders Landscape, 1956, is an example of this style of work, which captures Johnstone’s return to the Borders and celebrates the land in deep and rich colour. The 1970s were a particularly productive time for him, with artistic collaborations and various exhibitions. The brushstrokes in his later works are broad and loose, and he continued to produce large abstract landscapes and smaller more calligraphic works, as well as portraits of friends, as seen with Study for Portrait, 1974. Just before his death in 1981, The Hayward Gallery, London, held a major retrospective of his career, which included over 200 large and small scale works.
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