Nerys Johnson’s work is a rare gem in the history of British Art. Her intense, vibrant flower studies are immediately recognizable and distinct. They are more like miniature stained glass windows than paintings. Their power comes from the forging of opposites: delicate, glowing petals and leaves are chained in darkness; the sense of movement in them – feelings of growing, flowering and dying – are rendered timeless by the clarity of her design; the minute and intimate are made monumental by her measured abstraction. These are condensed images of passion far removed from botanical painting, more influenced by Matisse and Mondrian than Redoute and McEwen.
Nerys’s paintings are as deeply spiritual as the crucifixes of Craigie Aitchison, besides whose work they deserve to rank. Aitchison was another contemporary, individualistic British painter whose work, like that of Nerys, has been edged into the back seat by the ascendancy of Conceptualism, but whose paintings, when the clouds clear, will be seen to shine like beacons. When that happens, the work of Nerys Johnson will take its proper place in the canon of British Art. She is a little master, a Samuel Palmer not a William Blake, a Thomas Jones not a J.M.W. Turner; hers is a small oeuvre but an utterly genuine and deeply rewarding one. So she will be rated as a colourist beside her friend Bridget Riley, and their works will be hung together in any noteworthy showing of the modern era of British art.
There was a reason why Nerys’s oeuvre is small, numbered in hundreds, rather than thousands, of watercolours and drawings. Though her sole ambition, from childhood, was to be a painter, she was constrained for most of her life by a debilitating form of rheumatoid arthritis, which prevented her pursuing a professional life as an artist. She earned her living as an art gallery curator, and became an extremely distinguished one, providing many artists with their first public shows. Early retirement gave her the time to paint, though with the passage of time she could only hold a brush with difficulty. The vigorous abstractions of her youth were gradually condensed into large-scale studies of flowers and foliage, many of them beautiful, in media which included charcoal, pen & ink/wash/watercolour, as well as, and increasingly, gouache. These led, through a remarkable process of distillation, to the jewelled illuminations of her last years.
Nerys’s long career in art galleries, and her commitment to showing the best art to the widest possible public, led her to direct that the artwork she created and left in her studio be sold and the proceeds used to help public galleries acquire works by living artists. The Nerys Johnson Contemporary Art Fund assists institutions to acquire paintings by living artists, whose work is distinctive in its strong and imaginative use of colour. Nerys’s own works and her generous Fund are fitting tributes to an outstanding artistic career. - Julian Spalding, February, 2014