Johnson, Marion

Full Name: 
Johnson, Marion
Other Names: 
Georgina Masson
Babs
Georgina Johnson
Date Born: 
23 March 1912
Date Died: 
1980
Place Born: 
Rawalpindi, Pakistan
Place Died: 
London, UK
Home Country: 
United Kingdom
Italy
Gender: 
female
Subject Area: 
Italian Renaissance architecture
Rome, Italy
garden history
Overview: 

Architectural- and garden historian;  photographer.  Born to a British military officer stationed at the time at the Khyber Pass, Pakistan, she grew up in a military family.  Educated in Bath, England, in a secondary school for daughters of British officers, she never attended higher education. Johnson worked for the British government in Paris as part of a public relations unit (and perhaps also for British military intelligence) in the years before World War II.  She returned to Britain where she married a British army officer, working for the Foreign Office between 1943 and 1947. At the conclusion of the Second World War, now estranged from her husband, she was attached semi-officially to the British Fifth Army in Rome. There she met Prince Filippo Andrea Doria Pamphili Landi (1886-1958) an Italian politician and nobleman, who rented her the former stable quarters of the Palazzina Corsini on his property.  Johnson decorated the apartment where it became a haven for expatriates and locals alike.  These stables opened to the palace’s garden and she took a subsequent interest in garden history.  

By 1950 she adopted the name of a maternal grandmother, Georgina Masson, partially to hide her Roman publishing activities from her husband.  Johnson, now Masson, began studying Roman architecture and its surrounding gardens with an improvised camera.  A large portion of her research was performed at the Fondazione Caetani in the city.  Her initial publications were in architecture, her first article being one in 1950 on Palladian villas for Country Life.  Then followed a series of articles for Architectural Review.  One of them, her 1955 article, "Palladian Villas as Rural Centres," impressed a young architectural history student (and later eminent Harvard Palladian architectural historian) James S. Ackerman who recounted it as the first time he’d read an article that considered the economic, social and political aspects of art (Ackerman, Origins).  Her first book was one of historical biography on Frederick II Hohenstaufen in 1957.  Publishing success came with the advent of the “coffee table book”, large-format highly illustrated art books.  The publisher Thames and Hudson issued a book of her photographs and text as Italian Villas and Palaces in 1959.  The combination of Masson’s artistic photographs and her easy though well-researched writing style made the book popular to a British economy only now emerging from the economic hardships of World War II. She later acquired a Roleiflex camera with which she took some of her most important photographs.  A book on Italian gardens of the same genre followed in 1961, published jointly in the United States by the emerging US coffee-table publisher, Harry N. Abrams.  Over time she developed connections with many British nobility and writers, most notably Evelyn Waugh and Harold Acton, the latter having come from an art-dealing family and living in Florence. She developed a close relationship with literary historian and Rome specialist Gunhild Bergh (1888-1961).  In 1965 the book for which she is most remembered, A Companion Guide to Rome, appeared, dedicated to Bergh. Numerous subsequent editions followed.  Masson returned to biography with a book on Queen Christina of Sweden, the Swedish monarch who forsook her native country to live in Rome.  Garden history, ever a passion, absorbed her later interests.  The results of study and travel to Harvard University’s garden and research center, Dumbarton Oaks, appeared the same year as the Christina biography, Dumbarton Oaks: a Guide to the Gardens.  When the Italian government purchased the Doria Pamphili in 1971, Masson lived briefly in rural Tuscany, aided by Acton.  Unhappy with the country life, she returned to Rome and a consultantship for the  Committee for the Defense of the Southern Landscape (of Italy).  There she did daily research at the American Academy in Rome near her apartment.  Diagnosed with cancer, she returned to England in 1978.  She completed a book on the Borgias before her death in 1980 and was at work on a history of the importation of special flower species in Italian gardens.  Only the Borgia book was published posthumously.  Her 5,000 photographic negatives were willed to the American Academy in Rome at her death.

A “vivid personality, sociable and outgoing with a non-stop flow of conversation” (Gendel), Masson’s prim but irascible nature won her a singular following. In a celebrated incident,  Alvar Gonzalez-Palacios (b. 1936), director of the periodical Arte Illustrata, published an article of hers in 1970 on seventeenth-century Italian flowers but failed to return her photos.  She publicly accused him of thievery at a party hosted by Acton. Her photographs are valued perhaps more than her writing, which, well-informed, never wholly embraced the scholarly. Her Guide to Rome is considered one of the last serious guidebooks to the city, with few restaurant tips or notices of popular amusements, it served as the educated tourists guide to the city by a foreigner who knew it well. Described as, "a cross between a guidebook and a work of literature (Wanted in Rome), it focused on archaeological and architectural treasures of the city.  Masson disliked the Baroque and those monuments are largely left out of the Guide.  Her photographic collection included social observation, architecture and gardens and contemporary historians value her images of 1950’s Roman neighborhoods.  It is still in print in later revisions by others.  She received the Ufficiale dell’Ordine al Merito della Republica Italiana for her work. 

Selected Bibliography: 
  • "Palladian Villas as Rural Centres."  Architectural Review 118 (July 1955):17-20;
  • Frederick II of Hohenstaufen. A life. London: Secker & Warburg,1957;
  • Italian Villas and Palaces. London: Thames & Hudson, 1959;
  • Italian Gardens. New York: Abrams, 1961;
  • The Companion Guide to Rome.  London: Collins, 1965;
  • Queen Christina. London: Secker Warburg, 1968;
  • Courtesans of the Italian Renaissance. London: Secker & Warburg, 1975;
  • The Borgias. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1981;
Sources: 
Archives: 

Fondazione Camillo Caetani, Rome

Contributors: 
Lee Sorensen