First published: Winter 2022/23


The art of Mary Bishop tells a story of grief, pain and institutionalisation that is powerful and relevant


For much of her adult life, Mary Cecil Hamilton Bishop (1914–1990) was compelled to live at Netherne, a mental hospital, in Surrey, England. There, from the mid 1950s to the mid 1970s, she regularly attended the art therapy studio run by artist Edward Adamson (see Raw Vision #72). She produced thousands of drawings and paintings, the diverse range of which run the gamut of the figurative – which articulate states of distress so lucidly that they seem to act on the viewer as direct transmissions – to her own language of repetitive abstract marks.


Untitled, 1962, poster paint and pencil on paper
all images: poster paint on paper, approx 18 x 22 in. / 45.5 x 55.5 cm, courtesy: Adamson Collection / Wellcome Collection, unless otherwise stated

Depicting embodied experiences of suffering, her most profoundly communicative works see faces expressing torment, dizzied and disorientated; often covering their eyes as if horrified by themselves. In others, small, colourless figures, representing Bishop herself, are sketched in pencil, always under threat of being engulfed and overborne by bruises and storms of dark paint. These figures are often caught in attitudes of despair, with arms raised to the heavens. Religious motifs occur frequently – in fact, Bishop’s art is permeated by a whole set of recurring themes: childhood, self-rebuke and disgust, experiences of being scrutinised, first by the parental, then the medical, gaze. Death and war also feature heavily as preoccupations. She wrote on the backs of many of her paintings; short bright-burning sentences which give invaluable insight into her intentions for the works and provide autobiographical context.


Untitled, 1962, poster paint and pencil on paper

Bishop’s father, George, was a talented historian – specialising in the religion and folklore of Russia – as well as a reverend of the Anglican church in the family’s home village of Cardington, Shropshire. In 1918, he was killed in action at the battle of Aisne, in France, having felt impelled to join the army despite, as a member of the clergy, being granted exemption. His daughter was just four years old.


Untitled, 1962, poster paint and pencil on paper

Through oral history from artist Adamson and the artist’s own fragmented written accounts, it would appear that Bishop’s mother was so overwhelmed by the bereavement that it affected her ability to parent her daughter with patience and compassion. She began to take young Bishop to Euston Station in London to see coffins and wounded soldiers returning from the front in Europe – to ensure that the child “grieved properly”. Such adverse childhood experiences seem to have reverberated throughout Bishop’s adult life. Her father’s body was never recovered and, despite his being memorialised by several group monuments, this may have contributed to the open-ended intensity of his wife’s grief. Young Bishop was brought up in a household where death and loss loomed large and her own emotional life was policed by her mother.

A series of fly paintings reflects her self-perception as having been an annoyance, with words written on the reverse of one work revealing: “Mother says I am a bluebottle.” On the back of another she expresses her feelings of claustrophobia: “I am a dead bluebottle, I can move neither forwards or backwards.” She writes of childhood as a time when “all was gloom”, and in several works she depicts herself during that period. Each of these is saturated in a sense of the artist being, by her very nature, inadequate or inappropriate, with one verso bearing an annotation that reads: “Mother said I was a dirty girl.” Sadly, it seems that Bishop did not receive consolation or acceptance from her peer group either. Numerous self-portraits depicting girlhood bear witness to her being bombarded with jibes and insults; again the subject of unwelcome, bullying attention. 




This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #113

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