Mary Barnes: archive

  • Mary Barnes
  • Archives and manuscripts

About this work


This collection is uncatalogued. The following is an interim description which may be altered when detailed cataloguing takes place in future.

Records relating to Mary Barnes' life and artistic process, including creative writing, writing about her mental health experiences and time at Kingsley Hall, scrapbooks and photographs, early artworks, and other personal writing and papers.

The material was sent off-site to a vendor for mould treatment and cleaning prior to arriving on site, as the conditions the works had been stored in had led to damp and pest damage. There is still visible staining to some of the records following treatment, though no active risk from mould.



Physical description

9 boxes (3 boxes for conservation treatment - extent will need amending)



Titles on the original folders do not always relate to contents, and contents of files can be mixed. As such, the box list often uses the title ‘various writings’ to try and capture the variety of mixed fragments, drafts and pieces of writing contained. At the point of cataloguing, it may be possible to refine this and find a better structure. Mary revisited her writing a lot, so there are often photocopies of drafts, rewritings, fragments of writing, which make it hard to tell what a specific file is ‘about’ as such, or sometimes even when it was created. Broad dates are used for this reason, unless date of creation was more immediately obvious.

Acquisition note

Acquired in 2023.

Biographical note

Mary Barnes was born in February 1923 and grew up in Portsmouth. Her younger brother Peter was admitted to a psychiatric ward at the age of sixteen and diagnosed with schizophrenia. He was later sent to long-term institutional care.

Mary trained as a nurse, working through WWII and away from home in the years following the war. She suffered her first psychotic breakdown in 1952 and was admitted to St Bernard’s Hospital and diagnosed with schizophrenia. After being discharged a year later, Barnes returned to work as a nurse and developed an interest in R. D. Laing. Barnes managed to contact Laing and began regular therapy sessions with him, while waiting for Laing to find a site for a new therapeutic community which Mary could be a resident at.

In 1965, Laing co-founded an experimental therapeutic community, Kingsley Hall, as an alternative to conventional psychiatric treatment. The aim of Kingsley Hall was to provide radical psychiatric care without restraints or medication for those diagnosed with schizophrenia. Mary Barnes became the first patient of this therapeutic environment and lived at Kingsley Hall from 1965 until 1970 (when Kingsley Hall closed). While at Kingsley Hall, Mary met Dr Joseph Berke, resident psychiatrist at Kingsley and her primary carer. Mary Barnes and Joseph Berke later co-authored a book about her experiences at Kingsley Hall, titled Two Accounts of a Journey Through Madness.

During her time at Kingsley Hall, Barnes regressed to a child-like state in which she refused to eat, wash, or dress herself, covering herself and her living space with her own excrement. Her first artwork was created using her faeces and depicted two black breasts on the wall of her room. Barnes was provided with oil crayons and paints and began to paint prolifically. Barnes developed her artistic practice through finger painting, sculpture, crayon drawings, and later oil paintings. Mary painted directly onto the walls of Kingsley Hall at times, as well as on large rolls of paper and canvas, and less conventional materials such as cupboard doors, tree trunks, cake boards, and cardboard.

Mary's brother Peter was briefly also a patient at Kingsley Hall in 1969.

Mary Barnes’ works were first shown in the late 1960s, and subsequently Mary toured her works and gave public talks on mental health and her own experiences. A play by Edgar Wright, Mary Barnes, was produced in 1978 at Birmingham Rep Theatre.

Mary’s brother, Peter, died suddenly in 1984.

In 1985, Mary moved to Scotland where she continued to paint and exhibit her works. She published a book of her writings and artworks in 1989, titled Something Sacred. Mary died in 2001, aged 78.

Related material

A selection of Mary Barnes' artworks have also been acquired by Wellcome Collection. The archive of Dr Joseph Berke (PP/BER) is also held at Wellcome Collection.

Copyright note

Transferred to Wellcome.

Terms of use

This collection is currently uncatalogued and cannot be ordered online. Requests to view uncatalogued material are considered on a case by case basis. Please contact for more details.

Appraisal note

There are often fragments of more ephemeral material in with the papers – leaflets for church, a letter from the bank, a prayer card. Where this material was extensive or clearly out of scope e.g. entire maps, often whole reems of blank paper, multiple duplicates / photocopies, then this material has been weeded out. However, lots of the fragmentary papers are left in place as they illustrate Mary's working patterns and original order.

Accruals note

None expected.

Ownership note

Stored in a former disused stable on the grounds of Falkland Estate, Scotland, in the custody of Ninian Stuart, Mary Barnes' friend. The material was in poor condition (damp and pest damage) and sent to Harwell for mould treatment and cleaning.


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Accession number

  • 2698