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Letters to Cynthia - 2

My Dear Cynthia,

This painting encompasses your behaviour of creation and destruction all in one work. It is not a sadness that this pieces was “damaged” in my mind, burning it could be a continuation of your practice. It's a part of the history of the piece. That the act of burning was just as important as the act of painting it, it was another application of your creation, at least that is what I chose to believe. I could be wrong. Maybe you were just in a destructive meltdown after your first (and only) exhibition in your lifetime when most of your work remained unsold. A fit of pique? An application of despair? Rage? Impotence? I’m not convinced. I’m glad someone saved it though, I think you were too, as you mentioned later that you regretted it (and those other times you threw away your work). Yet the saving of your work was another piece of your legacy. You had a history of supportive and deep friendships. That they reached into a literal fire to save your work, that piece of you, is no small thing. It is a glaring metaphor for the strength and endurance of the friendships that you would continue to develop, even as your illness progressed and you were locked away. That physical removal to the E1 locked ward did not hinder you to connect with people, to develop deep and significant relationships, as your friendship with your art therapist and advocate Britta attests. That she, even now, performs the acts of an active friendship to you. She was the one who saved the majority of your works and has provided Bethlem Museum of the Mind with many of your paintings for this exhibition. That your legacy has become a part of hers. That an illness which can too easily be viewed as only ever being the cause of loss, destruction and decay of relationships was the basis on which your enduring and enchanting friendship with Britta was built.

A stranger and a friend,


Helen is completing her workplace at the Bethlem Museum of the Mind in conjunction with her master’s degree work in Museum Education at the University College London. Join Helen to learn and chat about Cynthia’s life, and life’s work at the museum on Saturday 25 August at 14.00. Click here for more information and to reserve your free tickets.

Ldbth989   Tramp Sleeping In A Doorway C 1964

Cynthia Pell, "Tramp Sleeping in a Doorway" (c.1964), LDBTH989