First published: Spring 2017
Yvonne Mabs Francis was born in 1945 in Oxford, of Welsh descent. Her father worked as a picture framer and restorer. Yvonne’s own career as an artist began age 15, when she attended a new school and was taught by Keith Arnett, a conceptual artist. He showed her pictures of his harsh white boxes and told her this was the way forward as “all the marks on a canvas had been made.” Despite this Yvonne describes him as “the greatest teacher of painting and drawing I ever met. He made the useless draw and the hopeless paint. He lit up the whole school by displaying art works in every available space. From seeing this I never lost my interest or belief in painting, even when the virus of conceptual art took hold.”
The Impossibility of Being in the Brain of Someone Living
Yvonne pursued her desire to paint at Brighton School of Art and then at The Slade, where she felt “very comfortable and at home.” Sir William Coldstream headed the Slade. Despite the recommendations of the report bearing his name Yvonne recalls “it was so noticeably different at his own college. We were, above all else, painters; no other requirements were thrust upon us.”
On leaving the Slade Yvonne lectured on Contemporary Art at Wolverhampton College of Art for a year, but at the end of that year,1969, her beloved father died. The trauma and shock of his death changed her life for ever. She reacted to his death by becoming hyperactive with continual obsessive thoughts, and virtually no sleep for three weeks. The thoughts wouldn’t go away, but she felt no sorrow and was unable to cry. Amongst the thoughts was the delusion that her brains had grown out of her head, like antlers, depicted in the painting ’Liar.’ After a few weeks all the thoughts stopped completely which “felt like death, a terrifying experience.” But after this she slept for three days. She became psychotic, suffering from hallucinations, and entered the Warneford Mental Hospital in Oxford as a voluntary patient for three months. The treatment consisted of numerous drugs, deep sleep treatment and ECT. Yvonne received little help in understanding her condition from the doctors who treated her. “A wall of silence developed between me and the doctors. It was bewildering. I remember being analysed and told I was immature. How could anyone tell in the state I was in?” Wanting to go home, she ran across the hospital lawn in her nightdress, believing she could fly if she could get enough acceleration.
When Yvonne was discharged she asked the hospital doctor why he had never tried talking to her and explaining her condition. He replied that she was not able to be talked to. Yvonne describes psychosis like being behind a wall.
“Everything is logical behind that wall. You can take things in but your logic is not the logic practised the other side of the wall. One day, one of the Sisters seeing my distress said, “however you feel now it will pass,” and I tossed my head back and all the pieces of my skull, which I believed was floating in my brain, fell to one side, and I felt for one moment good and defiant. If only that sort of comment could be given more often.”
Her psychosis may have been triggered by lack of sleep. Dreaming appears to be a vital function and deprived of sleep, the mind begins to create dream like images whilst awake, producing psychotic illusions, far more disturbing than dreams. Over the years Yvonne has talked to others who have suffered from psychosis; in all cases their sleep patterns had been hugely disrupted before the onset of their hallucinations. By the time she left the Warneford her hallucinations had ceased completely, and her symptoms never returned. Her mental illness has been a highly disturbing, traumatic episode, but not a life long condition.