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Charlotte Johnson Wahl dies: from painter to PM’s ‘supreme authority’

Boris Johnson’s mother passed away in hospital at age of 79

Boris Johnson’s painter mother has died “suddenly” but “peacefully” following a 40-year battle with Parkinson's, the family has announced.

Charlotte Johnson Wahl passed away yesterday at the age of 79 at at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, central London. An “accomplished artist”, she “has been credited by the prime minister for teaching him the ‘equal worth of every human being’”, said The Times, which published the death notice.

Senior figures from across the political spectrum, including Labour leader Keir Starmer and London Mayor Sadiq Khan, have sent their condolences following the passing of the woman once described by the PM as his family's “supreme authority”.

Born in 1942, she was the daughter of international lawyer Sir James Fawcett, who advised the United Nations and International Monetary Fund as well as the European Commission on Human Rights. 

One of five children, she read English at Oxford, where she met her future husband, Stanley Johnson, at a dinner in 1962. “I was engaged to somebody called Wynford Hicks, who was extraordinarily beautiful to look at but actually quite boring,” she told Tatler magazine in 2015. 

She wed Johnson eight months later, before completing her degree at Lady Margaret Hall - becoming the first married female undergraduate at the college. They couple went on to have four children together: Boris, former Conservative MP Jo, staunch Remainer and journalist Rachel, and BBC presenter and eco-entrepreneur Leo, who has described himself as “the non-political one”.

Addressing his first Conservative Party Conference as PM in 2019, the Tory leader told delegates that his mother had taught him to believe in “the equal importance, the equal dignity, the equal worth of every human being on the planet”. But her life was not without problems. 

In an article in The Sunday Times in 2015, daughter Rachel wrote that Johnson Wahl had suffered from depression and “galloping” obsessive-compulsive disorder, and had a nervous breakdown while the family were living in Brussels in 1974.

“My mother rotated in and out of clinics, but the show had to go on,” wrote Rachel, who described how the children’s nanny became “the holder of the fort” in her mother’s absence. 

Johnson Wahl’s marriage also suffered, and she got divorced in 1979. She went on to marry US historian Nicholas Wahl in 1988.

But she said that she remained on good terms with her first husband, “because I couldn’t bear not to be”, The Times reported.

While juggling family life, Johnson Wahl gained renown as a professional portrait painter. Her famous sitters included Joanna Lumley, Simon Jenkins and Jilly Cooper, although she also painted other subjects, including landscapes. 

In 2015, the Mall Galleries in London presented an exhibition of her work called Minding Too Much, which chartered her “turbulent life”, including her experiences of marriage, motherhood and mental breakdowns. “Johnson Wahl paints with unswerving honesty and power”, the gallery said. “Above all, these paintings reveal a deep understanding of the complex human condition, and an empathy for our struggle.”

In the run-up to the exhibition, her friend and curator Nell Butler wrote an article for The Telegraph in which Johnson Wahl described how she became an artist.

“My older sister was terribly clever, as was my younger brother,” she said. “My parents didn’t know what to do with me so they gave me some paints and I turned out to be good at it. Once I started, I couldn’t stop.”

However, painting became more difficult after she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at the age of 40. Johnson Wahl told Tatler that “I would spend all my time writhing and jerking”, although subsequent medical treatments helped to less her symptoms. 

But despite her love of painting, “her children are, obviously, her great joy, and they are devoted to her”, said the magazine.

Her daughter, Rachel, told Tatler that “as I get older, I realise how lucky I am to have her as a mother”.

“She somehow enhances everyone she meets, and her extraordinary ability to appreciate other people - however apparently unblessed with charm or appeal - makes one see why they too are loveable,” Rachel added. 

“If any of her children have any empathy or humanity - I hope not too big an if - it is largely thanks to her.”

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