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Artist in Focus VIII - Cynthia Pell

“Encased: The Work Of Cynthia Pell/(Mrs) Cynthia Weldon” is on display at Bethlem Museum of the Mind until Saturday 1 September 2018. Please visit the exhibition page for more information.

Cynthia Pell was born on 28 March 1933 and grew up in north London. Her family was of Jewish background, and the Holocaust became one of the subjects which preoccupied her later in life. Her nanny of whom she was very fond gave her comfort and calm during her childhood. This was in vivid contrast with the relationship with her mother, who felt frustrated by her own restricted life. Throughout her own life, Cynthia Pell was closer to her father than to her mother.

From 1939 until 1944, Cynthia and her sister and mother lived in the country while her father worked in London. In 1944 Cynthia followed her sister to boarding school, which they both enjoyed. It was here that Cynthia’s interest and talent in art was encouraged. She won a national art competition in 1948 and went on to attend Bournemouth Art College. There was the expectation that she would do well in the world of art. In her second year at Art College, Cynthia met her future husband, Ron Weldon. She transferred to Camberwell Art College, and she and Ron were married.

Cynthia became interested, perhaps obsessed, in left-wing literature and in the then current vogue for drug-taking, following the publication of Aldous Huxley’s ‘The Doors of Perception of Heaven and Hell’’ which described the hallucinatory results of taking mescalin or LSD. By the end of 1956, Cynthia had become very thin which was in part a result of her depression, which led to her eating very little. It is unsure when, but between late 1957 and early 1958 Cynthia left Ron, who later married writer Faye Weldon (née Birkinshaw).

The only public exhibition that took place during her lifetime happened in 1957 at the Beaux Art Gallery in London, and included portraits of her friends and family. A critic who reviewed the exhibition wrote that Cynthia Pell’s vision of a doomed society was demonstrated by the anxiety shown on the faces of her subjects. After the exhibition, she destroyed many of the paintings in the street outside the gallery. This destruction of her own artworks, and sometimes giving them away, became a pattern she would follow in to her later life.

During the next couple of years Cynthia became nervous and easily angered. She was living on her own, and began to take pills - to sleep or to enliven herself. When she realised that she needed therapeutic help she began to attend psychiatric clinics. First Cynthia was an inpatient at St. Bernard’s Hospital, Southall and later in Bexley Hospital, during the 1970s. She was kept in locked wards, and administered drug treatments that did not reach her underlying illness. Her relationship with her father continued and was mutually supportive, but her relationship with her mother became virtually non-existent. Cynthia made close friendships with some of the hospital staff and other service users, and continued her relationships with members of the artistic community outside the hospital.

Much of the work in the Museum's collection dates from this period of Cynthia Pell’s life, when she was befriended by the art therapist at Bexley Hospital, Britta Von Zweigbergk. Her internal strife was literally illustrated by her artworks, some of which show people struggling with depression. The works from this period of her life include self-portraits and observations of those around her on the hospital ward, often drawn from her wanderings within the hospital at night. In a sense, she became the hospital’s unofficial artist-in-residence.

Find out more about Cynthia Pell’s life and work.