Michael Johnson was born in Thirsk, North Yorkshire. He initially studied fine art in York, before arriving in London in the early 1960s. Once in London, he saw an opportunity in the booming magazine illustration business and so transferred his skills into this new, thriving field. He quickly found work at one the largest creative studios in Europe, Carlton Artists, modelled on New York’s legendary Cooper Studios. Johnson had arrived in London just as the 1960s began swinging. Securing work for a number of advertising commissions, including one for the Kellogg account, Johnson was in demand. Advertising meant mass market exposure. His bold, vigorous aesthetic was the language of popular culture; plastering billboards and filling magazines.
Johnson worked closely with a number of visionary and hugely influential art directors bent on transforming the visual aesthetic of mass market publishing. These included art director, Willie Landels, who became editor of Harpers & Queen (now known as Harper’s Bazaar), Michael Rand of The Sunday Times, Germano Facetti of Penguin Books, Harry Peccinotti at Nova, Peter Knapp at Elle in Paris and Willy Fleckhaus of Twen Magazine in Germany. Among the art directors of widely read women’s magazines Johnson worked regularly for Tiny Watts at Woman, Peter Laurence and Bryn Havord at Woman’s Own and Joy Hannington at Homes and Gardens, all of whom commissioned some of the best illustration work of this time.
Johnson was friends with many successful Italian illustrators, introduced through his agent, Bryan Colmer. They would frequent the music venues, bars and Italian restaurants that sprang up around Soho encountering Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach and Robert Rauschenberg. It was a time when Soho’s migrant Italian, Greek and Spanish communities still dominated the resident population, when the UK’s creative industries were largely based around the area, while local night-life and the sex trade attracted low-lifers and high-lifers alike.
As well as Soho, many artists, musicians, writers and socialites gravitated towards the similarly cheap rents and available studios of Kensington and Chelsea. Johnson’s studio was situated on Elms Park Gardens, moments from Chelsea Arts Club and convenient for the King’s Road ‘60s scene.
Over the decades Johnson has continued to work collaborating variously with such luminaries as Bernardo Bertolucci and Sir Norman Foster, to name but two. He has travelled widely, living and working in the US, Germany, Switzerland and France. His extensive travels across North Africa have inspired a distinctive collection of drawings, paintings and photographs. In recent years there have been a number of solo and group exhibitions of his work in London, Paris, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt and Hamburg. Johnson is one of the founding members of the original Association of Illustrators. He now lives and works in the South of France.