Bryan Charnley (1949-1991): archive

  • Charnley, Bryan (1949-1991)
  • Archives and manuscripts

About this work


Papers created by Bryan Charnley which include various personal writings and diaries, a selection of dream diaries, a large set of sketchbooks, some loose sketches and prints, and a couple of school text books (which include early drawings).

The sketchbooks and loose sketches are extensive and offer insight into Charnley's artistic process and his emotional state. They contain a large variety of artistic techniques and writings.

Also included is a small amount of material collected by his brother, James, which was mostly gathered through research and interviews conducted in preparation for his biography of Charnley.

This material accompanies a collection of Charnley's paintings which can be found here.



Physical description

3 Boxes; 5 outsize bundles

Acquisition note

This small archive collection was donated to Wellcome Collection by Charnley's brother, James, alongside a set of Charnley's paintings which were purchased in 2018.

Biographical note

Bryan John Charnley was born on 20th September 1949 in Stockton on Tees. With his twin brother he spent his childhood in various different places: London, Chislehurst (Kent), Cranfield (where his father worked as a Senior Lecturer), and finally in Bromham (near Bedford).

In the summer of 1968, aged 18, he suffered a nervous breakdown but was able to study at Leicester School of Art later that year. In 1969 he was then offered a place at the Central School of Art and Design in Holborn, London but was unable to complete the course due to another breakdown later diagnosed as acute schizophrenia. From 1971 until 1977 he lived at home with his parents but there were some periods of hospitalisation and treatment (including ECT).

In 1978 he moved to Bedford and began painting. The first paintings were representational works including large flower paintings. He abandoned this work around 1982 and began to address his inner life, dreams and mental states, in particular trying to depict the experience of schizophrenia. Inspired by works he'd seen within the Bethlem collection, his work began to use a unique symbolic language and metephor to illustrate his internal feelings contrasted against the influence of the surrounding outside world. In 1984, four of his paintings were purchased by the Bethlem Royal Hospital for their permanent collection. He had a solo exhibition at the Dryden Street Gallery, Covent Garden in London 1989 and exhibited two paintings at the Visions exhibition at the Royal College of Art in 1990. However the little recognition he received was outweighed by the day to day problems of his illness and the heavy medication he was prescribed to counter it. His final work, The Self Portrait Series was an attempt to show the varying effects of his medication as he began to reduce and then stop taking it. His intention was that the final portrait would show 'a full portrait of the artist as schizophrene'. The 17 portraits are accompanied by written notes documenting this process. In July 1991 Bryan Charnley took his own life. Subsequently the Self Portrait Series was exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in 1995.

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Accession number

  • 2441