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Living a Full Life with Schizophrenia

The World of Bryan Charnley

The World of Bryan Charnley

Today I’d like to bring attention to an amazing artist and fellow sufferer of schizophrenia.  This man has honed his craft to unbelievable levels of talent and insight in order to help others understand the plight of the schizophrenic.  This wonderful painter is Bryan Charnley.  You can visit his website here if you want more information after reading this article.

Very much like the inspirational work of Louis Wain, Bryan Charnley has allowed his work to show, in an unmitigated manner, the effects of schizophrenia in an allegorical fashion through his paintings.  His work began in a tame manner, displaying his vision of normal, everyday objects, people, and landscapes, and later progressed into a more bizarre and magical style as his illness progressed.  The main purpose and mission of Brian Charnley’s work is to make the best of the negative situation of schizophrenia while raising the awareness for the non-sufferer to help them understand and empathize along with the rest of us.  Let’s take a look into the life of Mr. Charnley.

A Short Biography of Brian Charnley

bryan charnleyIn Stockton, on that ever fateful day of September the 20th in the year 1949, a young Bryan Charnley was born into this world along with his twin brother.  They spent their youth in London while their father earned his living as a Senior Lecturer.  Eventually they moved to Bedford where, in 1967, Bryan experienced would can be called a nervous breakdown or an acute psychotic break.  Despite this difficulty, Bryan still attended the Leicester School of Art the next year at the age of 18 years old.  His efforts in school earned him a spot as a student at the Central School of Art and Design back in London.

Unfortunately, Bryan was unable to continue his studies due to a second breakdown which came to be diagnosed as an episode of acute schizophrenia.  Fortunately, art is not an accredited career in which one must earn degrees to qualify for positions, and Bryan continued to develop his craft!  Between the years of 1971 through 1977 Bryan lived with his parents so he was able to undergo hospitalizations and other forms of treatment, which included electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).  Thankfully, Mr. Charnley was able to function well enough to move back to Bedford and continue his own studies and work in the field of painting.

The Various Projects and Successes of Mr. Charnley

blue still life

Blue Still Life

Upon Bryan’s return to Bedford in 1978, his paintings were representational, presenting his view of objects such as flowers and tea kettles.  This was a time of external focus, where his paintings largely showed his prowess in representing physical objects in his own style on canvas.  After years of this practice, Bryan began a series of paintings based on his internal world.  Beginning in 1982, his paintings addressed his own thoughts, dreams, and mental experiences related to schizophrenia.  It was only two years later when he began to receive recognition for his amazing talent when the Bethlem Royal Hospital purchased four of his pieces of work for their collection, which they intended to display permanently.  What an honor that must have been!

This success spread as Bryan Charnley was able to gain enough recognition that he was featured in exhibitions.  At the Dryden Street Gallery in Covent Garden in London in 1989, Bryan had a celebrated solo exhibition of his paintings.  He soon was able to display two of his paintings at the Visions exhibition at the Royal College of Art in 1990.  Bryan was earning the success he and his work deserved.  Sadly, he still struggled heavily with the symptoms of schizohprenia.

Due to the strength of his symptoms, Bryan was receiving heavy doses of medication with which he was able to experiment with.  This inspired his final series of paintings he called The Self Portrait Series.  While varying the dosages of his prescribed medications, Bryan painted a series of self portraits which were meant to display the effects of the medication on his self-perception and self-image.  This series is great and grew to 17 paintings before July 1991, when sadly, Bryan Charnley felt his suffering had grown to intolerable levels and took his own life.  Bryan’s final work was recognized for it’s creativity, power, and the statement it makes for all of us living with schizophrenia and was displayed at the National Portrait Gallery in 1992.  The paintings have been placed in the Prince of Wales International Centre for SANE Research in Oxford, a worthy location for a great series of artwork.

A Word from Bryan Charnley’s Artist Statement

The following is a beautiful and insightful excerpt from Bryan’s artist statement, which can be read in full here.

The only answer to madness I know:
See the stars through the scars.
From schizophrenia and the total humilaition
It brings I try to wring
Images of soul salvation.

Words need not be said beyond this.  Bryan understood the illness of schizophrenia and kept a positive outlook despite the struggles and difficulties, as we all should.

A Small Selection From Bryan’s Early Work

Bryan’s earliest work ranged from 1968 to 1981, all completed before Bryan had reached the age of 18 years old.  This period of work reflected the culture’s discouragement of using an easel and the encouragement of freely experimenting with creativity, even though he was the master of the photo-realist style in which he reproduced flowers and people on canvas very realistically.



Pam and I

Pam and I

Later on in this period of time after Bryan’s initial nervous breakdown, his artwork began to take on a bit of a more abstract and strange tone, such as displayed below:

broken madonna

Broken Madonna



Bryan’s Allegorical Paintings of Reality

From 1983 and beyond, Mr. Charnley began exploring his vision of the world. His goal was to bring that vision to the canvas so that others could understand his worldview in regards to schizophrenia and art. After all, the goal of art is to take the personal perceptions of the artist and share them in a universal mode.  You can see that, regardless of the disorganization of thought and the alterations of perception, Bryan Charnley was able to represent these complexities in a very organized fashion, which should be greatly appreciated by outsiders to the feelings and perceptions of the schizophrenic.



enigma and child

Enigma and Child

The two following paintings really represent the sense of floating paranoia and ego loss that can occur and the wonderful world of synesthesia we can gain access to at times.

the watchers

The Watchers

secret garden

Secret Garden

The Bondaged Heads Series

In the following series, of which I will show two paintings, Bryan attempted to show the prison of schizophrenia to the uninitiated.  The sufferer is bound and gagged, seeing nothing but his internal world and unable to speak clearly and coherently.  The inner world is full of delusions, hallucinations, visions, ideas, feelings, and more.

Umbrella Schizophrene

Umbrella Schizophrene

Fish Schizohphrene

Fish Schizohphrene

The Self Portrait Series

And finally, the moment we’ve all been waiting for!  Bryan painted 17 self portraits while varying the doses of the medications he was taking.  He also kept a journal describing his mind state and telling us the exact dosages of each prescribed medication.  You can get the full details here if you wish, otherwise I’m just going to share the images with you!

Self Portrait Series

Thanks for stopping by, reading, and viewing the awesomeness that is Bryan Charnley.  He represented us well and his art will live on forever.  Please celebrate art as a medium for coping and expressing yourself, whether that be through the graphic arts, poetry, music, or whatever you enjoy!

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