As Boris Johnson’s mother Charlotte passes away aged 79, a look back at her life

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Charlotte Johnson Wahl with Boris  (Getty Images)
Charlotte Johnson Wahl with Boris (Getty Images)

Charlotte Johnson Wahl, Boris Johnson’s mother, has passed away “suddenly and peacefully” at the age of 79.

Johnson Wahl, a successful painter, died at St Mary’s Hospital Paddington on Monday, according to a notice published in The Times. “Painter. Mother of Alexander, Rachel Leo, and Joseph; grandmother of Ludovic, Lara, Charlotte, Milo, Oliver, Cassia, Theodore, Rose, Lula, William, Ruby Noor, Stephanie and Wilfred,” it reads.

The Prime Minister once described his mother as the “supreme authority” in the family.

The daughter of Sir James Fawcett, a barrister who was president of the European Commission for Human Rights in the 1970s, her mother was the daughter of Elias Avery Lowe, a Lithuanian professor of paleography, and Helen Tracy Lowe-Porter, a translator.

Johnson Wahl got into Oxford to read English, but briefly put her studies on hold to travel to America with Stanley Johnson whom she had met there. The pair married in 1963. After returning to her degree, she became the first married female undergraduate at Lady Margaret Hall college.

Of meeting Stanley at a dinner in 1962, she told Tatler in 2015: “I was engaged to somebody called Wynford Hicks, who was extraordinarily beautiful to look at but actually quite boring. 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.

“Afterward, 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. Then he said he had been offered a Harkness Fellowship (a bursary to study in America) and if I didn’t go with him we would definitely split up.”

Charlotte Johnson Wahl and Miriam Elia (Iona Wolff)
Charlotte Johnson Wahl and Miriam Elia (Iona Wolff)

The couple had four children – Boris; journalist and author Rachel; former minister Jo; and environmentalist Leo – before they divorced in 1979.

As an artist, she made her name as a portrait painter – her sitters included Joanna Lumley and Jilly Cooper. She told Tatler that her parents gave her a set of oil paints when she was just five years old. “I could handle them well and I immediately began to paint, without instruction. It was something I could make my own and be clever at. None of the others could paint,” she said.

In 1974 she spent nine months at Maudsley psychiatric hospital after suffering a mental breakdown. “I had become extremely phobic. I was terrified of all forms of dirt. In 1974, I had to go into the Maudsley as a patient of Professor [Hans] Eysenck [the influential late psychologist]. While I was there, I did 78 paintings and they gave me an exhibition,” she told the magazine.

In a separate interview with the hospital’s museum, Bethlem Museum of the Mind, she described this “dark time in [her] life.” “It was awful. I was trying to get rid of my rituals, obsessions, fear of dirt and dislike of food. I thought they could help me get rid of those obsessions but they couldn’t.

 (10 Downing Street/AFP via Getty)
(10 Downing Street/AFP via Getty)

“They gave me canvasses and paints, which was just wonderful; I couldn’t talk about my problems, but I could paint them.

“It was a success and I even sold a great number of the paintings, but there was always the pain of being away from the children who were little at the time.” She later continued: “It was dreadful. I left Jo, my youngest, when he was still very little, and when I came back I felt like he didn’t know me.”

Her marriage eventually broke down. In the years following her divorce, she refused to accept any money from her former husband, eking out a living by by selling paintings. She later recalled being “very hard up”.

At the age of 40, in 1982, she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. In her 2015 interview with Tatler, she described discovering there was a connection between her depression and OCD and the disease. “It was such a relief to find that OCD often precedes Parkinson’s and is a part of it. I always felt such a bore with these ritualistic things I had to do. It’s much better controlled now with medication. I also discovered that depression and tiredness go hand in hand with Parkinson’s,” she said.

Rachel Johnson and Stanley Johnson (Dave Benett/Getty Images)
Rachel Johnson and Stanley Johnson (Dave Benett/Getty Images)

In 1988, she married the American professor Nicholas Wahl and moved to New York where she began painting cityscapes – which were the subject of a sell-out exhibition in 2004 – but returned to London following his death in 1996 and moved back to Notting Hill.

Despite raising the future leader of the Conservative party, Johnson Wahl told the Radio Times in 2015 that she had “never voted Tory” and described her parents as “rich socialists.”

She spoke candidly about being “anxious” about her son taking the “ghastly job” of prime minister. “If he reaches the top, I’d feel very proud, but very anxious. It’s a ghastly job being prime minister. He’s not as daft as he behaves – and he does behave in quite a daft way. He’s late for things and so on, but has a very good sense of what’s important. I think he would be a good prime minister. He’s a very kind man, very fair,” she continued.

Meanwhile, Rachel Johnson told the Evening Standard in 2015: “We are a very mixed-race family politically and my father tends to marry socialists.” Adding that her mother was “the only red in the village when we lived on Exmoor.”

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