Paint the Smell of Grass

Artist Nevill Johnson celebrated in book and retrospective exhibition. Click Play Video for an online exhibition with Dickon Hall

The first major book and retrospective exhibition on the life and work of artist Nevill Johnson have been launched by the Ava Gallery in Bangor - and for those unfamiliar with the English-born artist's work, both exhibition and book represent a stunning and highly accessible introduction to one of the most intriguing artists of the 20th century. 

'Self Portrait', Nevill JohnsonBorn in England, Johnson worked in Belfast and Dublin between 1934 and 1958 and continued to exhibit here until the 1990s, creating an enduring place for himself in the history of Irish art.

The book, entitled Nevill Johnson - Paint the Smell of Grass, includes an introduction by Johnson’s eldest son, Galway, and two essays, one a biographical memoir by professor Eoin O’Brien and the other on Johnson’s work by curator Dickon Hall. 

Given full access to Johnson’s private papers and his own archive material, the Ava Gallery has drawn on previously unpublished sources and personal knowledge to present a rounded and detailed picture of the man and his work. 

Illustrated with images of Johnson’s paintings, drawings, collages and photographs - the majority of which have never previously been reproduced - it also features works from major public collections from The Ulster Museum, Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, amongst others. 

Nevill Johnson - Paint the Smell of Grass has been published to coincide with an exhibition of his work at Nevill Portraitthe Ava Gallery in Clandeboye Estate, County Down - which runs from November 29 until December 20. The exhibition spans Nevill's entire career, from the early 1940s until the 1990s, and as a chronological overview of his work illuminates Johnson's astonishing development as an artist. 

Beginning with privately commissioned works like 'Linenscape' and moving on to war-related pieces in which the A bomb and Armaggedon are just around the corner, the exhibition continues through to Nevill's later abstract work, heavily influenced by Picasso, Johnson's only artistic hero. 

'Despite his marvellous pedigree as a painter, few people are aware of the depth of Nevill Johnson’s work. Little work and limited biographical information is presently available in the public domain,' explains Ava Gallery director Dickon Hall. 

'We hope that together with our retrospective exhibition, this book will develop a much wider consciousness and understanding of Nevill Johnson and his work.

'Johnson came to Belfast in 1934, began to paint at night with John Luke and then moved to Dublin, where he exhibited regularly at Victor Waddington’s alongside Louis le Brocquy, Colin Middleton, Gerard Dillon and Daniel O’Neill. Even after his return to England in 1959, he continued to exhibit at the Dawson Gallery and finally with Tom Caldwell from the early 1970s to the 1990s. 

'Byrne's Pub', Nevill Johnson'Not only was he one of the most highly-rated and sought-after painters in Ireland during these decades, his photographs of Dublin are regarded as amongst the greatest photographic work produced in Ireland. 

'Undoubtedly one of the most serious and innovative artists living or exhibiting in Ireland over this period, Johnson’s work reflects the complexity, unconventionality and humour of its creator.' 

All images used in the book and exhibition, as well as in this article, are copyright of the Estate of Nevill Johnson.

Enter our competition to win a copy of Paint the Smell of Grass.

Priced at £30, Nevill Johnson - Paint the Smell of Grass is available to purchase from the Ava Gallery, Clandeboye Estate, Bangor (028 91852263 or email or from James Adam Auctioneers, St Stephen’s Green, Dublin (00 353 01 676 0261 or email