If you are a graphic artist of a certain age, or a fan of The The, then you will be aware that Andrew Johnson sadly passed away at the beginning of this year. Though I wasn’t aware of who he was back in the mid-eighties, the covers of The The records such as Soul Mining and Infected sat amid my piles of vinyl and his unique and colourful style was an instantly recognisable part of 1980’s design culture. It wasn’t until 2011 that I became aware of the family connection, when conducting research on the Two Puddings pub, for my book about East London that led me to Andrew’s website - View From Windowsill Bay. I revisited his website in late 2012 and his then most recent blog post revealed that he had been diagnosed several months earlier with a brain tumour. Reading his matter of fact words about this illness it is remarkable to consider that in April of that year he had been given just six months to live. A few months later I started work on a biography of Matt and was hoping to meet Andrew at some point to conduct an interview, keen to include him in the narrative as a crucial contributor to the history of The The.
Sadly, due to to his continuing ill health, this was never to be and our only conversation was limited to a handful of short emails, one of which included his memory of seeing The Sex Pistols at the 100 Club in 1976 and years later discovering that he appears in the background of one of the famous photographs of the small crowd of in-the-know people waiting on Oxford Street before the gig started. He also told me about visits to Dark They Were, And Golden Eyed, the sci-fi bookshop then in St. Anne’s Court, Soho, pointing out that the staff were usually so stoned that it was a wonder anyone bothered taking books to the till to pay for them instead of opting for the easiest five-fingered discount in town.
Though it is the artwork for his younger brother’s record sleeves that he will be most remembered for, he left behind a large body of work, that to my mind at least, is much more satisfying. Having an older sister who went to art college meant that I was privy to the joys of looking through artists sketchbooks at a young age and they often contain wonderful work that never really sees the light of day (even artists who never achieve fame have their paintings framed and on someone’s walls, but sketchbooks tend to sit on shelves out of sight).
The beauty of the sketchbook is that is contains work representing the immediacy of putting pen, brush or pastel to paper. It captures a moment that no finished painting really does. It reminds me of the adage that many musicians hold, that the first take is nearly always the best one, the version that successfully captures the essence of the music and contains its real soul. There is a wonderful economy of line and brush-stroke in these works by Andrew that is in marked contrast in mood to the angst on display on most of those record sleeves. His love of comic strip art is also evident in many of his sketches. What also comes across is a sense of humour, that is often gentle, quirky and quintessentially English. Also, a love of nature, befitting of an artist who finds themselves retreating from the city towards the landscape - in this case, Suffolk - where Andrew spent the last years of his life, enjoying the environment on his doorstep, walking through it and observing, the way an artist is wont to do, those small moments of simple beauty in nature.
I would recommend a visit to Andrews blog, which remains on the Internet. Here you can see some of the work from his sketchbooks, as well as his prints and even artwork from his childhood, including drawings of his beloved West Ham United. Not only was he a fine artist, but also a very good writer, with an unfussy voice and an economy with words that mirrors his draughtsmanship. I expect he inherited this from his father, Eddie, as the sense that you are sitting in the same room listening to them, is familiar.
Andrew Johnson was a fine illustrator, some of his fully realised work reminding one of the great artists of the field whose work furnished books or prints in the first six decades of the twentieth century. Many of these did so for the Curwen Press, whose print works in Plaistow were within walking distance of the pub he spent his childhood years living above.There are plans to publish a book of the best of Andrew’s work, and hopefully too, some of his writing. Matt had been working on this project for some time with Andrew and with the help of Kevin Foakes (aka DJ Food) it will be brought to fruition. Expect another post when a publishing date approaches.