An emotionally charged painting that offers a glimpse into the private childhood world of the prime minister and his young siblings is to play a key part in a new exhibition about the pain of grappling with mental illness away from the family home.
The frank and poignant work, Where is Mama? by Charlotte Johnson Wahl, Boris Johnson’s late mother, is to hang alongside paintings by artists that include Louis Wain and Richard Dadd. The exhibition, A way from home: Bethlem artists on longing and belonging, opens next month at the Bethlem Museum of the Mind in Beckenham, Kent, in galleries housed in the world’s oldest psychiatric hospital. Among the arresting images, each of which tells a story of loss and treatment, is the painting made by Wahl in 1974, while still married to Stanley Johnson and separated from her four young children – Boris, Rachel, Leo and Jo.
The picture shows the children linking arms in a chain, with large teardrops falling from their eyes. “I was aware of this striking painting and the opportunity came up to show it, thanks to a loan from a private owner outside the Johnson family,” said Colin Gale, the museum’s director. “Charlotte had a long association with the museum, which has two of her other works in its permanent collection. For us, she is a significant painter first, and then the mother of some accomplished people, second.”
Wahl was mother to Boris, Rachel, Leo and Jo and the large and emotional painting was completed during a difficult, and ultimately unsuccessful, period of treatment in south London’s Maudsley Hospital. The artist was trying to conquer her compulsive behaviours, something she was open about in later life. “The way she expresses that deep anxiety is striking,” said Gale. “Some of her other paintings are really raw, showing the pain and often disappointment with mental health care. And yet this image could really be the story of any mother at a certain moment.”
Gale said the theme of the show, the longing for home, is clear in much of the art that the museum holds, the legacy of 200 years of mental health practice on the site. “We can illustrate this distress, but it is also something people can relate to, even though they may not have thought about it before. If you are in residential care for mental distress, it is something you may have to deal with. Of course, individual situations are different and sometimes a home is not a place of safety, despite the idea that it should be.”
Gale added that a decorated cardboard fireplace, made almost a decade ago by the resident of a psychiatric intensive care unit to cheer up his sparsely furnished room, is evidence of the conflict about trying to make a hospital a place to “regain a sense of wellbeing”.
“He felt a room stripped of all the potential ligature points needed more warmth,” Gale said, “but other patients are reluctant to create a homely atmosphere because they want to focus on getting back home.” Gale believes accomplished watercolours and oils in the exhibition created by recognised artists and then hung next to the work of amateurs, who also fear exclusion from society, make their hard-won perspectives on the concept of “home” very powerful.
The painting Edge of the Wood (1928) by Wain, himself a former patient at Bethlem, shows a cat stepping over the threshold of a chocolate box cottage into bright colour and sunshine, while in Dadd’s Sketch to Illustrate the Passions – Brutality (1854), a grizzled fisherman raises a hand to slap his wife, who drops her Bible as she cowers in fear.
Dadd had been diagnosed as being “of unsound mind” in 1843 and that summer, under the influence of a delusion, he killed his father with a knife and fled to France, where he was arrested. In Bethlem, also known as Bedlam, and then in the newly created Broadmoor Hospital, Dadd was encouraged to continue painting as therapy. Some of his small, detailed works are considered masterpieces.