Eric Albert Johnson was born in Suva, Fiji, on 8 November 1908 to an Australian father, Frank Johnson, and his Fijian-born wife, Mary Lee; sometime in the 1940s Eric assumed the name Lee-Johnson. His ancestry was never less than antipodean: his maternal grandfather had served in the New Zealand wars, and he sometimes claimed Tongan blood on his mother’s side and, not least, a dash of Australian convict blood on his father’s. The family came to New Zealand when Eric was four and for a period lived with relations in Auckland and the King Country. His father was briefly a wheelwright at Tūākau; when the business failed, they moved to Oparau. Eric attended schools near Tūākau. His King Country childhood established his intimacy with and affection for New Zealand’s rural regions and makeshift towns. He was familiar with both floods and bushfires, the residue of which often figured in his paintings.
Johnson’s talent as an artist was evident at secondary school, where a succession of sympathetic art teachers prudently left him alone. At 16 he won a place at the Elam School of Art in Auckland and it was there that he began to question the conventions of existing New Zealand painting. In 1926 he joined the newspaper publishers Wilson and Horton, as a lithograph artist and illustrator, continuing to study at Elam in the evenings. He briefly worked at an advertising agency in 1928 before rejoining Wilson and Horton, where he worked on producing special supplements to the New Zealand Herald.
In 1930 Johnson headed for England, soon finding work in London as a designer and typographer at an advertising agency. He met up with fellow expatriates such as Hector Bolitho, Geoffrey de Montalk, Jocelyn Mays and A. R. D. Fairburn. He attended evening classes at the Central School of Arts and Crafts and exhibited paintings at the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts. He also took up photography.
On 28 November 1931, at Holborn, London, Eric Johnson married Ivy Blow, a stenographer. They returned to New Zealand with their two children in 1938. He found work as a copywriter with the J. Ilott advertising agency in Wellington and free-lanced as a photographer; photographs were published in the Weekly News and in Sydney publications. After contracting tuberculosis, Johnson spent two years in Pukeora Sanatorium in Hawke’s Bay. In 1940–41 he was back in Wellington free-lancing and, later, working at Ilott’s as an illustrator.
While Eric was at Pukeora he had met Vivienne Joyce Hopkins, and she now came to Wellington. His first marriage ended in divorce in February 1946, and he and Vivienne were married at Auckland on 15 March 1946; they were to have three children. He was by now a member of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts and his painting was encouraged by Howard Wadman, editor of Art in New Zealand. He reproduced Lee-Johnson’s paintings; in return, the artist redesigned the periodical’s format.
After a brief spell in Auckland as an accounts executive with Ilott’s, Lee-Johnson moved with his family to a cottage at Piha Beach. Here he concentrated on painting. Although he had a small invalid’s benefit, he was compelled to continue free-lance work. He took a studio in Auckland, which became the Auckland office of Art in New Zealand. Here he made the acquaintance of writers and critics such as Eric McCormick, Arthur Sewell and Owen Jensen; A. R. D. Fairburn introduced him to Terry Bond. At Fairburn’s suggestion the Lee-Johnsons moved to a cottage on Bond’s property at Mahurangi; they paid no rent, but gave paintings to Bond.
Lee-Johnson had long determined that his painting would take ‘a clearly Pacific, regional path’. Contemporary New Zealand painting seemed to him to deliberately avoid the truth about the landscape – that pioneering activity had littered much of it with corrugated iron, fencing wire and ‘other ugly elements’. This had to be acknowledged before local art could ‘advance beyond mere decoration’, and he actively sought a distinctive regional imagery. In the process he began using a camera: initially to record scenes he might paint, and later for the sometimes surprising images he found in his lens. In October 1946 he held his first New Zealand exhibition of paintings at the clubrooms of the Auckland Society of Arts, and by the late 1940s his paintings were receiving critical attention.
From 1946 to 1948 the Lee-Johnsons again lived at Piha. Eric travelled frequently to Northland and became fascinated by its history and ‘frontier-type landscape’. It was rich with early New Zealand history and its derelict dwellings, abandoned churches and pa sites proved a rich storehouse of images for paintings. The family lived at Hokianga from 1948. Lee-Johnson held a major exhibition at Helen Hitchings’s gallery in Wellington in 1949. From 1950 he was editor of the Year Book of the Arts in New Zealand and had a selection of paintings reproduced in Landfall in 1952. He made his only visit to the South Island in 1950.
In 1951 Eric Lee-Johnson was hospitalised in Whāngārei with a recurrence of tuberculosis. By the late 1950s he was increasingly disillusioned with the art scene, especially with the increasing prevalence of what he saw as abstract internationalist styles. He no longer mounted his own exhibitions, although he was included in exhibitions in Auckland, Wellington and Britain. He produced many photo-essays for the Weekly News and in 1955 photographed Opo the dolphin for New Zealand and Australian newspapers. In 1956 Maurice Shadbolt made a film about his work.
Vivienne moved to Auckland in the mid 1950s. The couple divorced in December 1959, and on 19 December 1959 Eric married Elizabeth Sara Nielsen (née McDonald), a schoolteacher, at Dargaville; they would have one son. After their marriage they moved to Waihī in the Hauraki district. Lee-Johnson was guest artist at the Bishop Suter Art Gallery in Nelson in 1962 and at the annual exhibition of the Wanganui Arts Society in 1963. He served a three-year term on the management committee of the National Art Gallery (1964–67) and in 1965 won first prize in the National Bank of New Zealand art competition.
In 1967 Elizabeth Lee-Johnson was appointed to a teaching position at Mahurangi College and the couple moved to Warkworth. They were back at Waihī by 1970 when Eric held a major exhibition at the Waihī Arts Centre gallery. They moved to Whāngārei in 1973 and to Howick in 1985. The Waikato Art Museum mounted a major exhibition in 1981 which then toured to several other centres.
Lee-Johnson had been known primarily as a painter and few were aware that he was an equally gifted photographer. In 1989 John Turner of the Elam School of Art became aware of his vast collection of negatives and contact prints. The inclusion of his photographs in a major show at the Auckland City Art Gallery established his importance in New Zealand’s photographic history.
Eric Lee-Johnson died in hospital at Ōtāhuhu on 24 May 1993; he was survived by his third wife and six children. One of the earliest New Zealand painters to reject European models in favour of a native imagery, he won a cryptic poetry from lonely townships, humble dwellings, ravaged hills, and slain forest. In trying to persuade New Zealanders to look long at their land and ponder their relationship to it he was close to writers such as Fairburn, Charles Brasch, Kendrick Smithyman and Maurice Duggan. He expressed annoyance at those who paid him the tribute of imitation, but his continuing influence on other artists is testament to his success in compelling his fellow countrymen to look at their land afresh.