Outside In : Artist Feature with Yvonne Mabs Francis

by Mental Movement Magazine

It was just weeks into our launch for #MentalMovement back in March when Steph and I discovered the incredible work of Yvonne Mabs Francis. We had finally found an artist that had managed to encapsulate so perfectly just how bizarre some of the thoughts and feelings that come with having mental health can be. Completely taken by her artistic depiction of her own experience with mental health, we decided to track her down.

Here’s her incredible story …

It’s 2016 and this year I am 71 years old. In 1969 when I was twenty four years old, after the death of my father I had a nervous breakdown and went into the Warneford Mental Hospital, Oxford as a voluntary patient for a period of three months. In 1999 I began a series of eight large paintings which I exhibited with a text, explaining exactly what I was suffering.

My breakdown began directly after my father had died. I came home from London to my parents at Oxford. My brother, who watched my father at night, came to me in the night saying “I think dad has died”. Over the next few weeks I had obsessive and interesting thoughts, almost continuously, as I had little or no sleep. It was at this time and as a result of these obsessive thoughts, I thought my brains had grown out of my head as shown in the painting ’Lair’.
Painting by Yvonne Francis the artist

Liar by Yvonne Mabs Francis

I had studied fine art at the Slade School of Art  and  at that time had a job lecturing on Contemporary Art at Wolverhampton College of Art. I returned to work. I went down to the studios to tutor the students as I was used as a link between history and practical work. I was still not sleeping and still had obsessive thoughts. Suddenly all my thoughts stopped! It was like death. I was terrified and ran to Lily’s room who was one of my students and a friend. I laid on her bed and fell asleep. I was wakened by a very frightened Lily telling me I had been there for three days. Somehow I got back to London eventually going back to my brother at Oxford and finally entering the Warneford, believing a liquid was pouring from the upper parts of my brain trickling down my scull. By the time I got to the Warneford all the liquid had been used up so I thought everything was over. Being asked before entry whether I wanted to commit suicide did not help. I had been a very successful art student and wanted to live but life seemed against this. I was terrified.
Madness of Medication

The Madness of Medication by Yvonne Mabs Francis

I spent four weeks in an open ward. The painting ‘The Madness of Medication’ came from this time. I ran across the lawn, dressed only in my nightdress, wanting to go home and believing I could fly if I could get enough acceleration. After this period I was put into a locked ward and my mother was told not to visit so often. I was given a separate room in which I was locked in on a couple of occasions. I was in, so it seemed, for a long haul. The painting ‘Double Deaths’ and ‘The Electric Bed’ came from those experiences. I was given numerous drugs, deep sleep treatment and finally ECT. I found the ECT treatment very helpful as it was carried out in the ward while I was unconscious. It made you feel better immediately although it wore off. However it was helpful to hold on to longer and longer periods of feeling better as time went by.
Double Deaths

Double Deaths by Yvonne Mabs Francis


The Electric Bed by Yvonne Mabs Francis

I submitted myself to the hospital to gain helpful information by doctors who I thought would know about the condition I was suffering. After all if I were to have a heart operation the Doctors would explain to me the procedure and the necessarily for it. However a wall of silence developed between me and the Doctors. It was just bewildering. I remember being analysed and being declared I was immature. How anyone could tell in the alternated state I was in, puzzled me and how it could help even more confusing. When I finally left the Doctor who dealt with my case had a meeting with me. I asked him why he had never tried taking to me. His rely was that I was not able to be talked to. I really wondered at that point if he really understood mental illness. I confess had he talked to me then my answers may not have been normal. Mental illness is like a wall (or as Sylvia Plath says inside a bell jar).  Everything is logical behind that wall. You can take things in but your logic is not the logic practised the other side of the wall. If he had attempted to explain my condition and tell me I could get well again or cope better if it recurred, telling me what I had been suffering was commonplace (which later I appreciated) and how it may possibly proceed, then a load of the fear would have been alleviated. It would have been taken in even though my reactions would not reflect my comprehension. I felt he did not appreciate any of this: and he was a practising psychiatrist!!. One day while I was in the open ward one of the Sisters seeing my distress said, however you feel now it will pass and I tossed my head back and all the pieces of my scull which I believed was floating in my brain fell to one side and I felt for one moment good and defiant. If only that sort of comment could be given more often. One day almost thirty years later I heard a talk on the radio by Rufus May a clinical psychologist. What was special about Rufus is that before training he had suffered mental illness. He had during his training had to hide this fact. His sympathetic approach moved me so much I cried and felt outraged that a person with mental health problems who I think the best people to treat people with mental health patients should not be welcomed but discriminated against. Luckily he managed to hide his past so the system did not destroy him and he still practises thoughtful and sympathetic approaches to mental health recovery.

I had an outpatient appointment after I left. I never went back. I now live within striking distance from the hospital and I am often driven past the hospital and still feel emotional about the place. I was once asked to meet a group of students who lived in college accommodation opposite. I quickly got them to change venue. One day I hope to be able to walk up it’s driveway, see the lawn I run over in my nightdress, see the reception I was asked if I was suicidal and see the room I was locked into. Even though it all happened near fifty years ago I still can’t do it.

It took over a year to feel any near to myself again. I returned to London. My lectureship  contract was over and I had been ill in the summer when I may have tried for other lectureships. I  considered supply teaching in schools and was called to County Hall to be interviewed by a psychiatrist who told me that there was something detrimental in my notes, but he thought it was not true and that would help me. I asked what it was. He told me he would not tell me so I became extremely upset. At which point he became upset too! It did cross my mind to snatch the notes in front of him and rip them up. I wish now I did. He then told me it was all untrue and was a test to see my tolerance level. I don’t think either of use scored high marks on that test.

I did teach successfully teach for a very short period in schools. But then my life changed. I was too stressful to continue painting so I looked to something which had helped me in the hospital. When I started to get better in the hospital I looked out my Biba clothes. The nurses admired them when I wore them and it helped my state of mind and made me feel I had regained some interest in life even if it was just what I wore. I started to design and make clothes and eventually had a workshop in Bicester and retail shops in Oxford’s, High Street and Cambridge. I closed in 1981, after the birth of my son, invested my money in student houses and returned to painting.

I used my mental health experiences for my paintings because I wanted more of a content. After all there was politics, feminism, gender and all sorts of illness in art, so why not mental health. But most of all I felt people did not appreciate what was really suffered. Once when I exhibited my mental health paintings, a person said their father had suffered mental illness and now after seeing my work she could understand what he may have been suffering. I don’t think I would have understood either if I had not suffered, so perhaps some good has come out of my experiences and perhaps one day I may be able to walk up the driveway of the Warneford? I do hope so.

To see more work from Francis, you can find her here at Mental Spaghetti
Alternatively, you can listen to the explanations behind her work here.

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