He is best known for his series of self-portraits painted while reducing his prescribed medication over a series of weeks, which culminated in his death by suicide.
Bryan Charnley was born on 20 September 1949 in Stockton on Tees, one of twins. During his childhood, he lived with his brother and parents in South London, in Chislehurst in Kent, in Cranfield - where his father worked as a Senior Lecturer - and finally in Bromham in Bedford. His talent for painting was evident from a young age, and he painted a number of portraits of his friends and family during his teenage years.
In 1967, aged 17 he suffered a nervous breakdown. However, he completed a pre-diploma art course in Leicester and then began a diploma at the Central School of Art in 1971. Here, his focus was primarily on sculpture, rather than painting. During this period, Central School of Art was increasingly teaching conceptual art, and Charnley's contemporaries in London art schools during this period including members of the Young British Artists.
Charnley had another breakdown in 1971, and was later diagnosed with acute schizophrenia. From 1971 until 1977 he lived at home with his parents between periods of hospitalisation and treatment including ECT, and worked as a painter-decorator alongside other odd jobs. However, he always felt disadvantaged by the stigma surrounding his illness, which prevented him from teaching.
In 1978, Charnley moved to his own accommodation in Bedford, where he re-commenced painting. Determined to make a living as an artist, he focused on the fashionable photo-realist style then popular, producing commercial portraiture and what he called 'flower paintings' - close-ups of flowers painted photorealistically.
However, success was slow in coming, and from 1982 onwards, Charnley's work increasingly took schizophrenia itself as its subject.
This was partially a response to Charnley's study of paintings held in the collection at Bethlem Museum of the Mind (then Bethlem Royal Hospital), including works by William Kurelek and Louis Wain. Charnley wrote of these paintings:
‘Here I saw art stripped of all esoteric and conceptual pretensions. I gladly adopted this approach, which seemed to be more vital than any current “-ism”. I found myself on an interior journey in which landscape and subject were subsumed to inner vision. This led to the large bondaged heads which, I hope, stand as an image of schizophrenia.’
Charnley's relationship with Bethlem continued throughout his career: in 1984 the Museum and Archives (now Museum of the Mind) purchased four of his paintings for their permanent collection (they have since acquired three more) and in 2015, Bryan Charnley also formed the subject of the first temporary exhibition at the newly refurbished and reopened Museum of the Mind in 2015.
Charnley's work during this period of his life was dense in imagery, particularly Freudian images drawn from his extensive reading of the German psychoanalyst. He also drew inspiration from the op-art painter Bridget Riley and produced several abstract works during the 1980s that were inspired by her work. The 'bondaged heads' Charnley refers to, of which one - Brooch Schizophrene - is now in the public Bethlem Museum of the Mind collection, are dense in visual imagery, but also take an illusionistic approach to their subject.
Depicting a series of heads wrapped up in scarves, with a cacophony of images projected onto them, the paintings attempt to represent Charnley's experience of so-called 'thought broadcasting', a common symptom of schizophrenia.
During the late eighties, Charnley began to exhibit his work publicly. He had a solo exhibition at the Dryden Street Gallery, Covent Garden in London 1989, and he also exhibited two paintings (including Angel and Straitjacket, currently in a private collection) at the 'Visions' exhibition at the Royal College of Art in 1990, curated by Aidan Shingler. 'Visions' aimed to dispel 'myths' about schizophrenia, and to put forward the thesis that the illness can be a uniquely creative 'state of consciousness'.
However, Charnley still felt he was not sufficiently successful with his painting, which failed to outweigh the day-to-day problems of his illness, and the heavy medication he was prescribed to counter it.
Several of Charnley's paintings, such as Leaving by the Window (Private Collection) and Fish Schizophrene (Private Collection) include references to the traumatic experience of his partner, Pam, attempting to take her own life by jumping from a window. Charnley's relationship with Pam also formed the subject of a small double portrait, Pam and Me, (Private Collection) painted during Charnley's photo-realistic phase, which indicates his interest in the British artist David Hockney, particularly Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (London, Tate Gallery).
Charnley's final work was the so-called 'Self Portrait Series', painted as an experiment in coming 'face-to-face' with schizophrenia. Between March and April 1991, Charnley experimented with varying dosages of his medication - Depixol and Tryptisol - painting a self-portrait each day that reflected how his concept of 'self' changed with the illness. Charnley was encouraged to do so by Marjorie Wallace, a journalist at the Telegraph, who planned to write an article about the project.
The 17 portraits and accompanying journal entries can be seen on Bryan Charnley's website, and they were presented in a film made by Charnley's brother James in 2009. In July 1991, Bryan Charnley took his own life, with the final self-portrait still on his easel.
The 'Self Portrait Series' was exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in 1995.Solo exhibition at the Dryden Street Gallery, Covent Garden, London 1989
'Visions', group exhibition curated by Aidan Shingler, Royal College of Art, London, 1990
'Crossing the Border', monographic exhibition at Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston, 8 February - 18 March 1995
'Bryan Charnley: Self Portrait, Face to Face with Schizophrenia', monographic exhibition, National Portrait Gallery, London, 1992
'Bryan Charnley: The Art of Schizophrenia', monographic exhibition, Bethlem Museum of the Mind, Beckenham, 12 February - 22 May 2015
'Scratch the Surface', group exhibition, The Pod, Coventry, 14–27 March 2016