CYNTHIA PELL (1933-1977) THE ARTIST
Cynthia Pell was born with a prestigious talent, winning a national art competition in her last year at school. She was a student at Bournemouth College of Art and then Camberwell and was remembered at the latter for being the most gifted student of her year.
She married a fellow student Ron Weldon and life seemed full of promise. She spent a summer painting in France and had a solo exhibition at the Beaux Gallery, London in 1957. However all was not well and after the exhibition, she lit a bonfire outside on the street and burned her unsold work. This was a destructive pattern that recurred throughout her short life.
David Thompson, the then Times Art Critic reviewed Cynthia’s first art exhibition in May 1957. She was 24 years old.
‘ORIGINAL TALENT IN A YOUNG PAINTER’
‘A good many of the realist painters have introduced us to the informal privacy of their home life. At Miss Cynthia Pell’s first exhibition which is being held at the Beaux Art Gallery, Bruton Place, we get to know an intimate circle of friends. Forty four paintings, mostly rather small, go the round on christian name terms; there are ‘Jeanne and the children’ ‘Evie sleeping’ ‘My father and mother’ ‘Michael as poet and young lover’
But the disconcerting feature about Miss Pell’s family reunion is that she projects into a world of close relationships what one presumes is her own vision of a sick society and a doomed era. Every face is lit with anxiety and fear, the eyes glittering with fever, the hands clenched in despair. Such visions are usually expressed in the anonymous terms of a generalized humanity rather than in those of identifiable personalities and the way it is particularized in this case makes it the more disturbing.
Miss Pell paints in an expressionist manner which is often (as in ‘Mr Chalmers at the park’) strongly reminiscent of Ensor. It is sometimes ugly, sometimes overstressed and hysterical as expressionist painting so easily becomes. But the exhibition announces an interesting and original new talent.
Her, at times, stark Expressionist style drew admiration from fellow artists and critics. Patrick Hayman, the painter observed in 1958;
‘Her painting at timed, seems to have something of Sickert’s enigmatic silence and Kokoschka’s uncanny penetration into the human character’
He considered her;
‘A painter of remarkable stature. She searches for an answer about the truth of our situation in life at this moment in time, an answer to be expressed in visual terms .....it appears to me that she has a rare talent which already is beginning to flower’.
Years later when the struggle to re establish her reputation had begun -
through the efforts of the artists Evelyn Williams, Natalie Dower and Paula Rego and a retrospective exhibition of her then known work was held at the Orleans House Gallery in Twickenham,
John McEwen wrote in the Sunday Telegraph, August 15th 1999;
The result is a revelation ..... nothing could prepare one for the sometimes alarming yet invariably moving drawings and paintings of this gifted expressionist, with her intuitive sense of form and compassionate understanding of the human condition....’
‘Pell destroyed much of her work and a lot of what remained has been lost, but the power, tenderness and physicality of these surviving drawings and paintings, both of people and landscape is undeniable’.
A year later however 122 drawings and paintings had been uncovered during her time as an in patient at Bexley Hospital in Kent (1973-77) and led to a further exhibition at the Boundary Galley in St. Johns Wood, London. John McEwen reviewed this exhibition in the Sunday Telegraph, 3rd December 2000;
‘Pell is virtually unknown. She drew and painted portraits of her fellow inmates at a mental hospital, using any available scrap of card or paper. In the end she took her life and only by chance and through her friends, led by the artist Evelyn Williams have these works emerged and been properly honored. Yet for all her modesty of means she displays more compassion and empathy in a single drawing than (Anselm) Kiefer in all his mighty works, however hard he huffs and is puffed’.....
Reviewing the same exhibition, John Russell Taylor in the Times wrote (12th December 2000);
‘The story of Cynthia Pell is one of brilliant early success, a later career clouded by illness and posthumous discovery .....like the best of the art to emerge from concentration camps, these (drawings and paintings) are remarkable for their intense emotional quality, which completely transcends the anecdotal interest by universalizing Pell’s agonized vision’.....
The Jackdaw in November 2000 reviewed the Boundary Gallery exhibition;
‘Cynthia Pell was an extraordinary person who suffered debilitating emotional and psychological problems .....she produced a body of concentrated intense paintings, drawings and sketches, the more acute her depressive illness became the more distressing her work became’
CYNTHIA PELL: UPDATE 2017/18
One of the disadvantages of being a keeper of art work is that it is often stored in folders and portfolios and put in a dark corner for safety instead of being accessible to a wider audience. It was always Britta von Zweigbergk’s intention to find good homes for the bulk of her collection of Cynthia Pell’s work, particularly the Bexley Hospital drawings and 202/13 saw this intention being realised.
She was helped and supported in this by the distinguished artist and friend of Cynthia, Natalie Dower.
Finding good homes took up most of the summer of 2013 and turned out to be a satisfying venture which ensured that at least some of Cynthia’s work would be made more widely available to the public.
Oxleas NHS Foundation Trust (Successor to Bexley Hospital) took 10 pieces, mainly portraits which would hold historical links for those who had had past connections to Bexley Hospital during the 1970’s when Cynthia was a patient.
Ten works were donated to the Archives and Museum at the Bethlem Royal Hospital (see link), plus twenty books on the Bexley Hospital drawings which was an accompanying book for the exhibition of Cynthia’s work during the years at Bexley Hospital, held at the Boundary Gallery, St. Johns Wood in 2000.
An exhibition of the donated works to the Bethlem Royal opened on the 28th August 2013 and ran until the 20th September. The exhibition was titled ‘Ordinary Moments’ and the flyer for the exhibition observed; ‘Regardless of subject matter, Cynthia’s evocative work depicts an intense emotional view of the world, her experience and others’
Such exhibitions encourage wider understanding of the arts in mental health and the Bethlem Royal is a leader in this field with its archives and museum a positive treasure trove of distinguished and exciting work. a selection of Cynthia Pell’s work is to feature in an exhibition at the Museum of the Mind in the near future.
A further four works were donated to the New Hall Art Collection (click on link) based in the Murray Edwards College, Cambridge.
It is hoped that further homes can be found and venues in which to exhibit her work.
CYNTHIA PELL: GALLERY
CYNTHIA PELL: THE BEXLEY HOSPITAL YEARS
There were individuals, already patients in the hospital - in other wards - who found themselves on E1, the locked ward, on a relatively regular basis. ABL or PB (see Wards and Departments /E1) and Cynthia Pell. Cynthia’s regular ward during the first two years of her admission was R1 (The James Maclean Unit. (see ‘The Village on the Heath) and although very attached to R1 after the first few traumatic days of arrival she often got herself quite comfortable on the locked ward.
The settling down took on a particular pattern - getting her bearings, special relationships established with members of staff, particularly the night staff. Her place by the window - looking out on’;
The little path that runs like a shadow under the trees
(see photos), a regular cup of coffee at her side and tin of tobacco, matches and the paraphernalia of smoking near at hand, Creativity would often re assert itself in a natural flow of activity (see photo re note sent down to me in the art therapy department) My work journal at the time records Cynthia’s admission into E1 in the winter of 1975;
12th November 1975
‘Cynthia Weldon was admitted to E1 on Monday 10th November - I thought she would be - she took some paper and talked to me a great deal - quickly and excited, very manic and bursting into tears - her face crumpling up like a little girl. She looks rather terrible with hair disheveled and wearing old pyjamas with grey jacket. wants to get back to R1. Longed to go outside in the sunshine so I took her for a walk round the grounds. She picked some flowers and felt faint several times, buckling at the knees etc, so I took her back’.
Six days later there was little improvement;
18th November 1975
‘Quite busy on the ward - not so much drawing and painting but good communication. Cynthia Weldon is still very weepy - alternating between crying and laughing - quite possessive about me and getting jealous if I spoke too much to George (Charge Nurse on E1 at that time)
Says she hates it in E1 - wants desperately to go back to R1 . Not eating properly - so not allowed to drink interminable cups of coffee, very upset about this - hasn’t done much drawing - saw one portrait of George - good. Also she drew the small kitten that was up on E1 last week (Sister Chris Coppins has taken her home )
The day after;
‘Worked hard on the ward, not a great deal in the way of creative response but a lot of verbal responses;
BS in bed
CW(Cynthia Weldon) Upset
SQ Flatly uncooperative
SF As soon as I opened the ward door she made a bolt for freedom - I had my hands full - with the trolley, art materials etc but did try and block her way, three or four nurses came rushing out after her and Cynthia was very helpful.
Yesterday Cynthia wept and said she didn’t like herself as she was at the moment. She said she knew she was a nuisance and that she got on everybody’s nerves and nobody liked her.
Spoke about her sister who lives in Spain. Speaks very rarely about her mother but often abut her father’.
Early in 1976, Denise Russell began coming up with me once a week, on a wednesday morning and bringing clay. During the ensuing months Cynthia had been moved from R1 to S1, which was not at all to her liking. In January 1976, I wrote in my work journal;
‘Went up to E1 with Denise, the first one since the Christmas break. After the session, I went to see Cynthia in S1 - took in her deodorant and signal toothpaste.
She kept crying - asked me if I would just let her cry, which of course I did, it’s not something I would have any control over and best to let it just flow. Although they are very nice on S1, it hardly seems the right ward for someone like Cynthia.’
After few months later;
Monday 24th May 1976
‘Unable to go up to E1 this morning as Denise had a dentist appointment and I had to cover the art therapy department, but I found some time to go up during the evening session as there was a Rehab nurse in Oaklea 1. E1 was exceedingly high overall in general mood. Cynthia Weldon was in there with a black eye - evidently she had been moved from S1 to S2 and had then tried to hang herself in the bathroom - had also tried in E1 so she is not being put in a side room and is being watched constantly.
Tuesday 25th May 1976
‘E1 was quite crowded - but not everyone wanted to do art therapy, i.e. SQ was in fairly abusive form and SB was very preoccupied and remote.
Cynthia was withdrawn, morose - thinner than ever with a large black eye. Keeps trying to strangle herself.’
Wednesday 26th May 1976
‘A very lively session in E1. Did a session in the ward with Denise and we brought up clay which proved popular.
SQ shouted abuse at both of us - called us every single name under the sun etc etc! came towards me yet again with fists raised. I got behind the trolley so that it was clearly between us, hoping to deter any attack this way - however it had absolutely no effect and I was in dire danger of being ‘klonked’ but luckily an alert male nurse was there on time.
We were both a bit jumpy after that - i.e. remembering not to turn our back whenever SQ was around. Cynthia Weldon didn’t do any art therapy and still looked terrible - thin and gaunt. Didn’t talk much and had a visitor. Nurse Naughton from S1 - who is beautifully kind to her. Cynthia kept crying
‘When I went up to E1 the following evening after the art therapy session;
Cynthia much brighter - held my hand, seemed very glad to see me and talked about having ECT’.
The next week;
Wednesday 2nd June 1976
‘Again, E1 was quite crowded. SQ in rather better mood than usual - shouted a few obscenities but didn’t attempt to attack me this time. Wonders will never cease!
Cynthia Weldon had had ECT and was asleep n her room.’
At the beginning of the following week;
Monday am 7th June 1976
‘Very hot day - nobody felt tremendously energetic including me but a lot of easy and perhaps valuable talk flowed. S said she was pleased to see me and drew a very delightful goldfish.
Cynthia Weldon looked much brighter, said she wouldn’t be drawing for a long time as ECT made her ‘ordinary’ (she smiled as she said it ). We talked quite a lot and she displayed some of her old humour
A week later the improvement had been maintained;
Monday am 14th June 1976
‘Went up briefly to E1 - as I had been preparing for an art therapy seminar - took up some paper etc. SQ swore at me but Cynthia looked brighter.’
It had been good to see this return to relative normality and Cynthia herself was excited by it. A week later I reported on a good session;
‘SQ - more friendly this time - don’t know how long this will last but it’s a relief to be getting on well with her at the moment. She showed me her new top - bought in C&A in Bromley - but she had to be brought back because she started shouting at everyone in the shop.
Cynthia - looking so much better and brighter since ECT - says she’s like to stay in E1 - she likes it - says she’ll strangle herself if she has to go back to S1 or 2, says she’s told Dr Brough. Hasn’t done any drawing but talked a great deal - wanted me to bring her in some Swan Vestas matches and some black cotton.
Cynthia often drew the view from the window in E1. She particularly liked the’ little path that ran like a shadow between
the trees’ and did several versions of this in a variety of media.
Her self portraits during the time she spent in E1 became increasingly skeletal.
During the four years I knew Cynthia as an in patient in Bexley Hospital, I always knew her as Cynthia Weldon her married name. This was obviously very important to her. The person in the nurse portrait is Nurse Naughton who befriended Cynthia on S1 and gave her a great deal of support and kindness. One of the very best of nurses.