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Johnston Robert

Year working: 1906 - 1983

Little known about Johnston except that he produced some excellent artwork for Austin in 1950’s. Besides his poster work he also illustrated a book celebrating the first fifty years of Austin. Strong resemblance to the style of Frank Wootton. It would seem he was a Member of the Royal Institute of Painters. Fortunately two originals of his art have survived. Well! That was all I knew about Johnston until Martin Nutland came up with this original research on Johnston and his work! I take Martin's excellent paper and print it below:- -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- '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, Robert Johnston is virtually unacknowledged. He was born, as far as is known, on Rothesay island off the Scottish coast in 1906, the eldest of three brothers. His siblings were William and Samuel. Robert and Samuel worked in the early Thirties painting cinema murals. The genre was an off-shoot of the worldwide social realist movement whose roots were entwined around Latin-American artists like José Orozco, the turbulent and controversial Diego Rivera and equally driven, Alfaro Siqueiros. Their work, whose influence had, by the Johnstons’ day, spread to North America, often uttered strong political messages hinging on the worker, human suffering and civil unrest. At face value it seems contrived to associate Robert Johnston, the creator of rural idylls for car brochures, of tradesmen depicted as happy in their work and scenes portraying the indulgences of rich men or celebrating capitalism, with a clutch of hot-blooded revolutionaries. Would we be better turning to the illustrations by Rockwell Kent, that put the novel Moby Dick on the map; to the gorgeous astrological images Kent produced with Joe Mielziner for the Cape Cinema at Dennis, Massachusetts, or even to John Gabriel Beckman’s fantasies, painted in 1929 on the walls of chewing gum magnate William Wrigley’s Avalon Casino in California. In truth, both schools – the Latin-American muralists and the great fantasists from the United States – parallel the talents of Johnston. The scurrying, squawking, farmyard chickens of a pick-up truck brochure, the gentle lullaby of a fishing boat at rest, the invitation to golden sand in a railway poster are his. But there is agression too. The thundering, mechanised violence of the factory floor, the colossal presses, the stuttering crackle of an arc welder. So was Robert Johnston a dissident? Definitely not. His and Samuel’s murals would be soporific rather than subversive; escapist not explosive. But there seems to have been a family restlessness. Samuel abandoned the depression-ridden Britain of the 1930s and moved to Australia and a railway job. Like many such emigrations, it didn’t work. He died, back in Rothesay, in 1938, still a young man, after some kind of domestic or workplace accident. Painting Partner Samuel’s Australian experiences may have deterred Robert from following a similar path, but not his brother, William, who also moved there with his wife, Mary, settled, and raised a son, Roland. This may account for Robert Johnston’s work occasionally surfacing in that country. Johnston’s progress through the 1930s is very much a ‘closed book’. Deprived of Samuel, his painting partner, we wonder if Robert simply became a jobbing commercial artist. As war looms it is easy to see him in a similar role to the fictitious volunteer, Keith Lockhart, in Montsarrat’s The Cruel Sea – the peacetime journalist whose aptitude and commitment singles him out as a natural seafarer; because we do know, Robert Johnston commanded HMS Louis (after Sir Thomas Louis, one of Nelson’s captains at the Battle of the Nile) in WWll. A product of the stormy west coast of Scotland, with a passion for the sea and ships, it would have been natural for Johnston to have associated himself with some kind of seamanship. And he was good at it. Louis was a ‘Lend-Lease’ Captain class frigate built in Boston, Massachusetts in 1943. Even given the pressures of wartime, to have taken command of the brand new ship as an acting lieutenant commander in November of that year illustrates that Johnston must have been a highly respected and competent sailor. How distinguished was the ship’s overall career we do not know. But in August 1944 Louis sank the submarine U-445, with the loss of all hands, close to the German’s base in the Bay of Biscay. Johnston attacked with depth charges, one of the most technically demanding techniques in U-boat combat. It seems likely he stayed with Louis until she was decommissioned in late 1945 or very early ’46 prior to being handed back to the Americans. Johnston himself seems to have been on the reservist register from 1937 to about 1951. Like many others he may have found himself at an anti-climatic loose-end post-War, but of course, he had his painting to which to resort and was about to enter his most prolific artistic period. Skilfully Depicted Why the Austin Motor Company was to figure so prominently in it, is hard to determine. The vehicle maker had been an exponent of artwork for publicity from as early as 1919. Norman Pett, a Birmingham artist, skilfully depicted Austin cars bringing post-War pleasure to their owners, but by 1932 he had forsaken the shapes of automobiles for those of a young lady who divested ever-increasing amounts of her clothing as the cartoon heroine, Jane, in the The Scout magazine in 1937 under the title Moby Dick nor Hornblower. And like a generation of illustrators - Charles Murray Pradday, Ernest Boye Uden, JCB Knight, Ellis Silas – Johnston is just as over-looked. Val Biro, who was one of the most celebrated book artists of the time, and worked on the titles of such famous authors as Nevil Shute, C S Forester and Dennis Wheatley, and whose own artistic career has continued and flourished, has no recollection of Johnston. Yet for a time, he was up there with the greatest. A fellow illustrator on the Percy Waterman stories was Terence Cuneo, perhaps the most famous of all the 20th century painters of technical subjects and dramatic historical events. While the publishers themselves bear testimony to Johnston’s worth. Blackie and Son and Nelson, for example, were both bastions of the British industry and once household names. It is reputed that when the legendary painter and sculptor, Sir Edwin Landseer, was asked for what he would most like to be remembered, he replied : ‘the man who did the lions’, alluding, of course, to his four bronze statues at the foot of Nelson’s column, in London. We now have no way of knowing for what Robert Johnston would most like to be acknowledged. Perhaps it would be his work for the Austin Motor Company. That would certainly have made him prosperous. Leonard Lord, who ran the company throughout much of Johnston’s tenure, was not ungenerous when it came to any resource he thought necessary. Johnston’s first major undertaking was a sequence of as many as 10 industrial scenes in oil on wood for the Longbridge boardroom. Five are known to survive. Four with the British Motor Industry Heritage Trust and one in private hands. Retirement Present This last is particularly interesting. It is the illustration of the Austin A40 production line of around 1947. The painting was a retirement present, in 1974, to Dick Etheridge, the Works trade union convenor and Leonard Lord’s formidable adversary in the industrial troubles of the late 1950s. Amusingly, Johnston returned to his easel to add Etheridge’s face peering though the window aperture of one of the car’s under construction. The artist ‘re-signed’ the picture to preserve the authenticity. An even better known commission for Austin than the boardroom Works are the illustrations he provided, in 1955, for the company’s golden jubilee literature. There are more than 20 sketches that tell the firm’s story through the 50 years. They mostly portray ‘the Johnstonian good life’ as not only depicted in vehicle brochures, but in his railway and marine posters and scenes of the seashore and British countryside. And the most fitting backdrop for them was almost certainly a prestigious commemorative album presented to Austin dealers. It is not known when Johnston’s relationship ended with what had become, in 1952, the British Motor Corporation (BMC) and then, in 1968, British Leyland. Leonard Lord relinquished his executive control in 1961 and died in 1967 while still holding the honorary post of president. Alec Issigonis, the designer of the iconic BMC Mini left, mercilessly humiliated, in 1971, and Burzi, whose ‘man’ Johnston had been, went at roughly the same time, but with more of his dignity intact. Times, though, and particularly personalities, were changing. Johnston would have realized that and been aware that photography was rapidly replacing artwork as a publicity medium. So it is fair to conclude he departed Longbridge at approximately the same time as the old order. That leaves one final mystery. What was Robert Johnston doing in France? It has been suggested he exhibited at the ‘Paris Salon’. But that is not possible. The ‘salon’, in the correct sense of the term, was defunct long before Johnston even started painting. Yet that is not to say his work was not shown somewhere in the capital. There is at least one pair of unconnected French paintings : Paris Street Corner and the untranslatable La Pline. But another painting, Tunny Boats, adds to the researcher’s difficulty because of the ambiguity of title, style and location. It seems a reasonable assumption that the setting could be Concarnaeu, or thereabouts, on France’s Brittany coast as the location is one of the largest fishing ports in the country, and was once known as ‘the town of 30 studios and 30 sardine factories’! But ‘Tunny Boats’ was a subject approached by a wide variety of artists and by no means all dealt with the French fleet. The celebrated Australian-American, Hayley Lever in 1926 would have been focusing on the US scene. Sydney Lough Thompson in 1921 featured Concarnaeu as almost certainly did Bernard Sickert – younger Brother of the Bloomsbury set’s, Walter. Johnston’s style was not that far removed from either Thompson or Sickert and he may well have been trying to emulate at the same location one or both. Another picture that is equally puzzling is Le Majestic shown by the New English Art Club in 1946. This could be a painting of a boat but someone with a maritime background, such as Johnston’s, is likely to have provided a more precise title. Thus we may be justified in thinking the work might depict a hotel or theatre or picture house and The Majestic cinema at Bastille in Paris may not be too outlandish a suggestion. The final French mystery is a poste restante address in Villenne sur Seine given by Johnston to the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours in 1983, the year before he died. The small French town to the west of Paris is one of several clustered along the great river and favoured by artists. Monet lived for many years at Giverny which is only about 30 kilometres from Villenne. So are we to assume Johnston had a ‘second home’ in France or even ended his days there? It is probably fair to say Robert Johnston was always on the cusp of major recognition. Certainly his best known work would have been that for the Austin Motor Company, but however realistically the brochure pictures were executed, however dynamic and clamorous the industrial scenes, they were always going to be submersed in the greater automotive picture. Similar fates befall nearly all commercial artists. The railway and liner posters are about the expectations of travel, the book cover about adventure or romance, not an expression of some ephemeral concept of the artist. Maybe the irony for Johnston is that in the elitist British art world his acclaim at Austin as, effectively the publicist for largely undistinguished motor vehicles, was a stigma that obscured and detracted from his true artistic worth. It is undeniable the work created for his principal employer, lesser patrons or privately, had merit. It would not have been displayed by the Royal Academy and the other prestigious bodies had it not. Perhaps he was no Hopper, no Laura Knight. Perhaps not even a Cuneo or an F Gordon Crosby. Perhaps his fascination is that we do not know quite who he was. In the meantime we can only ‘print the legend’. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- In addition to Martin Nutland's work we also now have the excellent Motorgraphs website where examples of Johnston's work can be seen. Steve Lewis has pointed out that he also worked for the Rootes Group in the 1950's. See the front cover of their house magazine 'Modern Motoring and Travel.

Further reference

Our First Fifty Years - Longbridge 1905–1955 published by The Nuffield Press in 1955


Austin A40 original painting

Austin Princess original painting

Austin Healey Sprite sales poster

Illustration from ‘Our First Fifty Years book

Austin 152 Omnicoach passenger carrier poster

Austin A40 Countryman

Austin magazine September 1963 front cover from Motorgraphs site.

Johnston working at his board, behind him is Riccardo (Dick) Burzi who was an Austin Senior Body Stylist. Image courtesy of David Whyley

Modern Motoring and Travel - July 1952