‘It was perhaps inevitable that the art therapy department should be a magnet for those who were already artists before they had arrived at the hospital and their presence generally served to intensify and encourage the openness and exploratory nature of the open sessions.
I first met Cynthia Pell (though I always knew her as Cynthia Weldon, her married name ) in the spring of 1973. We had arrived at Bexley Hospital at around the same time, with not totally dissimilar backgrounds - provincial art schools. I had attended Folkestone and Dover Schools of Art and Cynthia had been a student at Bournemouth. I had gone on to Saint Martins, Charing Cross Road and Cynthia to Camberwell.
In 1973 there were around 1200 patients in the hospital. The farm had only just gone - the remains of the vegetable gardens were still in evidence with their rows of greenhouses and each villa took a pride in its surroundings - internally and externally. there were tennis courts and a bowling green, plus a football pitch with teams - staff and patients taking a competitive pride in their skills and winning trophies for their team and their hospital. Bexley at that time boasted a superb cricketer and dominoes champion.
I started as art therapist at Bexley in March 1973 and Cynthia had been admitted in May of the same year, having been transferred from Guys casualty department in a self admitted manic phase. Her ward notes from 1973 stated that she was a British subject and Jewish.
She had been a patient at St. Bernards Hospital in Southall on and off for about 10 years during which time she had attempted suicide several times and had been treated with Largactil. Melleril, Tofranil, Haloperidol and ECT.. She had also undergone psychoanalysis for several years with adverse results.
I had first been told of Cynthia’s arrival in Maplehurst, one of the outlying Villas dotted round the hospital, in the early summer of 1973, by another patient and I had gone over to the ward to meet her. At that time she was deeply depressed and my first introduction was when she was curled foetus like on her bed, silent and semi asleep. Not much was said on that and subsequent visits. I did learn that the earlier in the day it was, the more likely it would be that Cynthia could be found lying on her bed, seemingly oblivious to all around her, desolation covering her like an invisible blanket. I had little way of knowing at that time whether or not she registered my existence in any way.
In august 1973 she received eight treatments of ECT which appeared to suit her for a time and in November she was transferred with others to the newly refurbished and named James Maclean Unit ( R1, the new admission ward ). Dr Douglas Brough became her consultant.
R1 was geographically much nearer the art therapy department than Maplehurst and so our encounters became more frequent and of longer duration. The ward sent people down to the department on a regular basis and the nursing staff had told me of their difficulties with Cynthia and her reversal of day and night.
Cynthia soon showed herself to be a person of the night and we agreed on the labyrinthine structure of the hospital corridors, long and haunting, they held the senses with their visual fascination.
the reflections of light and darkness so symbolic of human universal existence. And the corridors held their own underlife - quite separate and different from the organizational establishment and the hierarchies of position and power. It was in the shadows of these corridors that I observed and became aware of a subversive world full of dubious deals and illicit sex, gambling, cards, debts and violence. Cynthia, in her more manic phases became very much part of this night world.
And I had the advantage of starting off as art therapist at Bexley during the later hours - so if I wasn’t exactly a night person in the hospital I was certainly an evening one and when I arrived to open the department for the evening sessions she was generally beginning to stir, restless at the prospect of the night ahead and beginning a routine of collecting little pieces of drawing equipment - quite humble in nature, but with which she achieved a great deal - charcoal, biro’s, pieces of random paper she might have spotted in the department or ward and whose colour or texture she liked, rarely the best cartridge, but more often, old envelopes, or scraps of sugar paper or card. Even when incarcerated on the locked ward E1 she managed to assemble what she needed or sent down requests for me to.
The months passed during that first year and her mood slowly changed. I was introduced to the other Cynthia, the one who was ebullient, pro active, sarcastic and deeply creative. I noted her quick, devastatingly accurate drawings and how deeply professional she was in her approach. No matter that she drew on whatever was at hand, lined paper, envelopes, pieces of cardboard - each art work was finished to a high standard. She had, early on quickly realized my usefulness in providing art materials and the space to store her drawings when she had completed them.
This was very much in contrast to her inherently destructive tendency to destroy her own work earlier in her life.
Throughout her time at Bexley although drawings and paintings were given away - to fellow patients, members of staff, she used the art therapy department as a repository for the bulk of her work - often sending recently completed pieces down to me via another patient, to be put away. Once a piece was completed however, she rarely wanted to see it again, her restless observation simply moved on to the next idea, the next situation, the next fellow patient or member of staff to depict.
Her manic periods tended invariably to end in trouble of some kind - an altercation on the ward, an argument with another patient, breakages borne out of despair. E1 was the locked ward in Bexley at that time and Cynthia became a regular visitor.
Whatever her ward however, institutional surroundings tended to have their own ‘hominess’ and familiarity, no matter what the circumstances -. the ward kitchen and friendship with the night staff were all important in the scheme of daily life and Cynthia - when well and functioning was a good person to share a story with or an idea. There was also the warmth of the boiler room and the friendship of the porters and the boiler men - the containing warmth of the surrounding areas - rather like an oasis on a cold dark evening for the tribes of feral cats that roamed the hospital at the time as well as Cynthia. They were kindred spirits
And so we became friends, colleagues even, in the sense of mutual feelings on art in general and the expression of it. As a therapist very much of the flesh and blood variety and still deeply interested in the practice of art and drawing - recognizing the strength of spontaneous expression, yet still rejoicing in the exploration of line, tone and colour, I was at a distance from the boundaries of psychoanalysis and related fields of psychotherapy while inspired by their ideas. It was not however the time or the place to give out appointments and consolidate a certain opaqueness of role. It was very much a time to be flexible and open.
The tactile, concrete aspect of art therapy with its practical considerations and its profound and comforting sense of ordinariness was a welcome antidote with regard to the clinical. It helped to create and promote a sense of calm and absorption even in the most troubled of spirits.
I had no desire to be anything but an art based art therapist, at home on the pit face or in the field. I believed that art and creativity in general could provide a means of confirmation, self exploration and a route into the world of the imagination, longing and the universal need to be visible and understood.
For Cynthia and others who came after her, it was a relief to encounter flexibility in times of opening the department and availability and the readiness to supply art materials. An acceptance of different ways of working.