Charlotte Johnson, Where Is Mama, 1972

Close and far

A captivating exhibition about the homelessness of mental illness

Artillery Row

Home and common human longings are the subject of a striking new show at Bethlem’s Museum of the Mind. Aptly titled A Way From Home, it features works by artists whose perception of home, and sense of belonging, have been altered by their experience of mental illness. Each work reveals something unique to the artist’s journey — but common to all is the unsettling sense that, to some, home is not a solid concept but a fluid idea, subject to change and evolution. 

Maureen Scott’s 1997 vision of homelessness is equally bleak

Separation from family, migration, a stay in a mental health facility and homelessness all play a part in shaping these troubled artists’ concept of home. Cynthia Pell’s Two Figures was created after she had been in and out of mental institutions for over a decade. Painted in 1964 whilst she was a patient at St Bernards Hospital in Ealing, this harrowing depiction of homelessness reflects on the artist’s strong affinity with those desolate of hope. Starkly grim and without the slightest hint of warmth, Pell’s oil-on-canvas instantly evokes empathy with the two helpless figures, heading towards a dark and grim oblivion. 

Maureen Scott’s 1997 vision of homelessness is equally bleak — but unlike Pell’s anonymous figures, its homeless woman’s face is clearly visible. Homeless Woman, Soho depicts the shut-eyed destitute sitting against the wall, with a bag of her meagre belongings by her side. A reflective poem, incorporated into the artwork, poignantly conveys her fragile state of mind and turbulent psyche — “alone on the cold concrete pavements of this city, she draws her cloaks of rags, and all her plastic bags, into the warm humaneness of her heart, which still beats life”. 

The poem ends with Scott’s chilling conviction that “in the morning she will die, withdrawn from this life”, but she will have time for “one last dream before icy snows steal her soul from the debris of her life”. 

Maureen Scott, Homeless Woman, Soho, 1992

Cold winter nights are also the setting for Thomas Hennell’s intriguing 1933 illustrations for The Diary of Agnes Beaumont. Created shortly after his discharge from the Maudsley hospital, they tell a gripping story set in 17th century Bedfordshire — a time when the Church of England was dominant, and dissenting congregations were frowned upon. 

It is the tale of the defiant Agnes Beaumont who, against her widowed father’s will, converted to the Baptist church and became an acolyte of the preacher John Bunyan. One cold winter’s night the disapproving father locked her out of the house, forcing Agnes to sleep rough. After pleading and begging, the young convert slept in the barn where, according to her diary, “it froze vehemently” and she survived the bitter cold through prayer to God.

Agnes Beaumont’s tale is full of twists and turns, unlike Figgy Fox’s sobering Three Paths. It shows three winding roads, set in a dreary landscape — one leading to prison, one to church and the third to a mental asylum. To this artist, these three institutions are the only places possible to call home. The heavy metal drummer began painting at the Bethlem in 1987, to relieve the boredom of the hospital, but the therapeutic activity proved helpful in his battles against depression, as well as drug and alcohol addictions. 

Fox’s second piece Alone bears the same simple, somewhat child-like delivery. A black and white watercolour where a solemn, lightly shaded figure is set within a brick arch — “a reminiscence of battles fought with multiple addictions,” read the exhibition notes, “perhaps as well as acquaintance with the grief of social isolation to which, from time to time, these battles gave rise.”

A Way From Home is a captivating show. Stemming from real mental health anguish, the raw creations stir reflective thoughts about life and the human condition. Such works also include Jorgen Steen’s 1998 My Inner Child, the first to greet visitors to the gallery. The intriguing piece is a small briefcase, with a dark, crudely drawn window, inside which is a doll of a small infant. My Inner Child is a strikingly direct illustration of the emotional baggage that humans carry with them.

The show features several well-known names, including Charlotte Johnson Wahl (Boris Johnson’s mum); Richard Dadd, who produced most of his work as a Bethlem and Broadmoor patient; and famous Victorian artist Louis Wain, known for his life-long depiction of cats. 

From the 1880s until the outbreak of the first world war, the Louis Wain cat was hugely popular, appearing in postcards, books, magazines, prints and annuals. Engaging in human activities, the cats would ride bicycles, play cricket, dig up roads, make after dinner speeches and even attend Ascot. One of many testimonies to Wain’s renown is the H G Wells quote: “English cats that do not look and live like Louis Wain cats, are ashamed of themselves.”

Bethlem inspired the word Bedlam, meaning uproar and confusion

In 1925, a year after he was certified insane, it was Prime Minister Ramsey Macdonald, himself a Wain admirer, who helped secure the artist’s transfer to The Bethlem. Over nine decades on, in 2021, the eccentric artist was the subject of a major Will Sharpe film, where he was portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch.

Wain’s 1928 piece Edge of the Wood shows a picturesque, fairy-tale cottage that looks like an illustration from a Grim Brothers’ book. In spite of its beauty, and surrounding lush blooms, the house seems somewhat eerie and a touch surreal. Perhaps, as suggested by the gallery’s notes, the “unapologetically sentimental” abode is “the memory of the Hampstead cottage the artist shared with his wife Emily and cat Peter forty years previously”. 

Richard Dadd’s intriguing watercolour Sketch to Illustrate the Passions — Brutality, takes us indoors, into a family’s living room. At first glance this is an ordinary homely scene, but a closer look at the meticulously drawn piece untangles the real story — the menacing fisherman’s hand is raised, ready to strike his wife. Seated in a chair, the woman cowers in fear and drops her Bible to the ground. A young boy is attempting to whisper in the man’s ear, and several onlookers are seen outside the wide open front door. 

Brutality is a picture of cruelty, intimidation and fear — a depiction of domestic violence. “To the abuser,” read the exhibition notes, “the piety of his victim…counts for nothing, likewise, he is unmoved at the presence of others who…register no horror at his action and show no inclination to intervene — there is no safety in this home.”

Other views of home include Marion Patrick’s Dog’s Head — a portrait of a dog that instantly evokes thoughts of home and companionship — and Matthew’s Fireplace, constructed of cardboard by the artist and shaped like a fireplace to give the patient’s hospital room a homely feel. 

There is also Patricia Smith’s touching Portrait of Daughter, created by the St Martin’s school of art graduate, who was a Bethlem hospital patient in the 60s. The subject of this portrait is her eldest of four children, Rachel, for whom she wrote the loaded words: “so steadfast through the anxious years, and ever ready to my side, yet I rewarded you with tears, and turned away my face to hide, of all of me there is no trace, within your Boticelli face.” 

Motherly angst is also at the heart of Charlotte Johnson’s harrowing Where Is Mama. Painted in 1974 whilst Johnson was a Maudsley Hospital inpatient, it depicts a gut-wrenching scene of separation and helplessness. The highly emotional image conveys the anguish both Charlotte and her children would be subjected to every time they came to visit her at the hospital, and the painful point of their eventual departure. 

Where Is Mama shows Charlotte Johnson’s hurting children with heavy tears streaming from their eyes. Charlotte herself and Stanley, the children’s father, are both small, sad looking figures in the distant background.

It is near impossible to view Charlotte Johnson’s work without making the connection to her famous son. Johnson is often referred to as “Boris’s mum”, a title of which the late artist was understandably proud, but her son’s fame should not distract from her great artistic talent. Charlotte Johnson’s work carries a rare level of power and candidness, often articulating complex stories in a simple yet moving way. Where Is Mama demonstrates her ability to convey experiences that will resonate with many. 

Now located in Beckenham, the Bethlem hospital has a long and special history. Founded in 1247 near Bishopsgate, it is the oldest mental health hospital in the world. It inspired the word Bedlam, meaning uproar and confusion. 

Notable patients have included John Frith, the would-be assailant of King George III; William Chester Mino, known for making one of the largest contributions to the Oxford English Dictionary; Houses of Parliament architect Northmore Pugin; and Hannah Snell, famous for cross-dressing as a male soldier.

The Bethlem museum and gallery are both housed inside the historic Bethlem building. Recognising the essential role that the arts play in health and recovery, they work together to break the stigma attached to mental health. Their creative art programs provide former and present patients a unique opportunity and ideal setting to explore their circumstances and, perhaps, transcend them.

A Way From Home is on display at the Bethlem Museum of the Mind until November 12.

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