A pair of dark, wide eyes stares out at visitors as they pass by, but not judging or scary, but with youthful vigour. This is the very young Charles Lutyen, an artist but, more than that, a therapist who helped people suffering from mental health problems turn to art for support.

Charles Lutyens, born in London in 1933, studied oil painting and sculpture at the Chelsea, Slade and St Martin’s schools of art, before initially settling at the Fabyc community — a sort of London kibbutz, and later moving to Oxford.

It was here that the artist turned into the art therapist, using art as a way of encouraging people to express their feelings and thoughts and over time, helping them to recover from mental illnesses.

Through all this, he maintained his own artistry, often examining how people in hospitals were treated and the environment they lived in.

As an art therapist in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire from the 1970s, Lutyens had access to psychiatric hospitals at a time when such places were feared and stigmatised. The nuanced realities of daily life inside these buildings were unknown by all but patients, staff and visitors. Lutyens’ paintings are colourful close observations of the qualities, characters, complexities and fragilities of human beings either ignored by the wider world or treated with alarm or disdain.

Some of those paintings and portraits are now on display at the Bethlem Museum of the Mind, based in south London’s Bethlem psychiatric hospital.

Most of them are of patients, many of whom are so inward looking that they are unaware of their surroundings, slumped into chairs simply existing rather than living. Lutyen manages to convey that feeling of people being little more than a lump of flesh trapping a mind trying to escape, and yet turn a corner and there’s rage and anger as a man lashes out, frustrated at other people’s inability to understand him.

Some of the largest and most abstract of the paintings are from Lutyen’s own depressive phase, where he tried to express his own feelings and thoughts, just as he had taught to his patients. The physician literally healed himself.

Away from painting, Lutyen is best known for Angels of the Heavenly Host, the UK’s largest single-artist mosaic, which can be found in an East London church, and a 15-foot x 15-foot wooden crucifixion sculpture, Outraged Christ, now on display in Liverpool Cathedral.

However, here in south London, you can get a much more vivid insight into the man, the art therapist who used art to record the therapy.

The exhibition, A World Apart: the work of Charles Lutyens is at the Bethlem Museum of the Mind until the end of August.

It’s free to visit and is open Wed to Sat from 9:30am to 5pm.

The museum is about a 15-minute walk from Eden Park railway station, or you can catch the Route 356 bus between the two. The SL5 superloop also stops outside the museum.


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