Photography: David M Benett/Getty
An emotionally charged painting that offers a glimpse into the private world of the prime minister’s childhood and his younger siblings is set to play a pivotal role in a new exhibition about the pain of dealing with mental illness away from the family home.
The frank and poignant work, Where is Mom? by Charlotte Johnson Wahl, the late mother of Boris Johnson, is set to stand alongside paintings by artists including Louis Wain and Richard Dadd. The exhibition, A way from home: Bethlem Artists in Longing and Belonging, opens next month at the Bethlem Museum of the Mind in Beckenham, Kent, in galleries housed in the oldest psychiatric hospital in the world. Among the striking images, each telling a story of loss and treatment, is a painting by Wahl in 1974, still married to Stanley Johnson and separated from their four young children – Boris, Rachel, Leo and Jo.
The photo shows the children entwining their arms in a chain, with large tears falling from their eyes. “I was aware of this impressive painting and the opportunity arose to show it, thanks to a loan from a private owner outside the Johnson family,” said Colin Gale, the museum’s director. “Charlotte has 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 talented people, later.”
Wahl was the mother of Boris, Rachel, Leo and Jo and the large and emotional painting was completed during a difficult and ultimately unsuccessful period of treatment at Maudsley Hospital in South London. The artist was trying to overcome her compulsive behaviors, something she opened up about later in life. “The way she expresses that deep anxiety is impressive,” Gale said. “Some of her other paintings are really raw, showing the pain and often disappointment with mental health care. And yet that image can truly be any mother’s story at any given time.”
Gale said the show’s theme, homesickness, is clear in much of the art that the museum holds, the legacy of 200 years of mental health practice at the site. “We can illustrate that angst, but it’s also something that people can relate to, even if they haven’t thought of it before. If you’re in residential care for mental distress, it’s something you may have to deal with. Of course, individual situations are different and sometimes a home is not a safe place, despite the idea that it should be.”
Gale added that a decorated cardboard fireplace, made nearly a decade ago by a psychiatric intensive care unit resident to liven up his sparsely furnished room, is evidence of the conflict in trying to make a hospital a place to “regain a sense of well-being.” be”. ”.
“He felt that a room without all the potential connection points needed more heat,” Gale said, “but other patients are reluctant to create a homey atmosphere because they want to focus on coming home.” Gale believes that the watercolors and oils done in the exhibition created by recognized artists and then hung alongside the work of amateurs, who also fear exclusion from society, make his hard-won perspectives on the concept of “home” very powerful.
The painting wood edge (1928) de Wain, himself a former patient at Bethlem, shows a cat walking across the threshold of a chocolate hut in bright colors and sunshine while at Dadd’s house Sketch to illustrate passions – Brutality (1854), a gray-haired fisherman raises his hand to slap his wife, who drops her Bible as she cringes in fear.
Dadd was diagnosed as “mentally ill” in 1843 and that summer, under the influence of a delusion, killed his father with a knife and fled to France, where he was arrested. At Bethlem, also known as Bedlam, and later at the newly created Broadmoor Hospital, Dadd was encouraged to continue painting as therapy. Some of his small and detailed works are considered masterpieces.