The amazing undiscovered life of Audrey the artist

Film-maker Carol Morley uncovered a huge archive about a promising Royal Academy student whose life was changed by a mental breakdown. She describes her journey into Audrey Amiss’s world

As I entered the rare materials room, a shaft of lamplight struck the bold wording: “Warning – this box is heavy when full.” Without even lifting it, I sensed the weight of the life inside. Audrey Amiss’s archive totals 80 boxes and includes 50,000 sketches as well as her paintings and diaries. As I delved in I felt like a detective looking for clues. I found a receipt for a Cornetto and a glue stick, Audrey’s last purchases before her death, aged 79. In her passport, she wrote as her occupation: “Typist, Artist, Pirate, King.”

Here was a woman who had written thousands of letters, about a multitude of subjects, to people ranging from the Queen to Mother Teresa to McDonald’s customer services. Amiss also made scrapbooks with the packaging from all the food and drink she consumed and noted her thoughts about the designs on the wrappers. She wrote that a bowl of Kellogg’s Frosties “resembles a storm in a tea cup”, that the illustration on a Quavers packet “suggests a haircut”.

Piecing together Amiss’s life, I was conscious of how it contrasted with the research I did into Joyce Vincent for my film Dreams of a Life. Vincent, who died in her bedsit at the age of 38 and wasn’t discovered for nearly three years, left nothing physical behind: the contents of her home were destroyed by the authorities due to contamination. Amiss left so much. It seemed like a gift.

Last November, I was awarded a Wellcome screenwriting fellowship, and it was in the archives of the charity that I discovered the uncatalogued collection of Audrey Amiss.

Born in Sunderland in 1933, to shopkeepers Arthur and Belle Amiss, Audrey developed a talent for drawing and painting at a young age. Her headmistress once wrote to her: “I think you will become one of the greatest painters of the age.” After attending Bede grammar school for girls and studying at Sunderland School of Art, Amiss won a place at the prestigious Royal Academy Schools in London, which made a proud splash in the local paper. In 1958, in her final term at the academy, Audrey had what she referred to as her “original breakdown” and ended up in Wallingham Park hospital, formerly Croydon mental hospital.

Amiss later came to believe that her breakdown was a conspiracy designed to ruin her, while family members wondered if the impact of the death of her father when she was a teenager had contributed. After hospital, Amiss did not return to her studies, but instead trained as a shorthand typist and spent the next 30 years working for the civil service. Up to her death in 2013, she was admitted to psychiatric wards on dozens of occasions, her diagnoses including bipolar disorder and paranoid schizophrenia.

One of Amiss’s many ‘logbooks’, which are filled with food wrappers.
One of Amiss’s many ‘logbooks’, which are filled with food wrappers. Photograph: Wellcome Library Archive

Intrepid, with a passion for travel, Amiss went on trips to India, Syria, South America and Russia. She wrote about a tour of China she took in the mid 1980s, describing how she wore a chairman Mao hat with origami hidden underneath, wilfully took over the tour bus commentary and, after running amok in a local village, found herself tied up in a Chinese asylum: “I didn’t blame them,” she wrote, “I can be a bit much.”

In other boxes, I discovered record books, detailing the daily letters Audrey posted. There was a four-page letter to the Salvation Army, “explaining in all the detail I can think of the infection of thrush I have had for years”. She wrote to the Sherlock Holmes Society about her missing sock. In a letter to the Lancet, which she signed “AJ Amiss (Miss), Mental Health Survivor”, she wrote of how she was “subjected to the indignity of an American-style arrest in Arding and Hobbs [department store] just before Easter”. To her sister, Dorothy, she wrote: “My good friend Brian likened me to Don Quixote, the crazy old knight. I see his point now… At times a bit batty, but method in my madness.”

About her life as an artist, Amiss said: “I was once in the tradition of social realism, also called the kitchen sink school of painting. But I am now avant garde and misunderstood.” Like all art, the quality of Amiss’s work is in the eyes of the viewer. For me, it resonates strongly and I consider she was a true artist: original and constantly seeking and looking: “We are still discovering truths about the planet we live on,” she wrote. I also admire her tenacity to keep going with her art: “I have been floored a couple of times about my talent but I pick myself up and continue.”

Amiss’s diaries, which she referred to as her logbooks, are erudite, perceptive, sometimes disturbing and often funny. She wrote of going to a London cafe called the Picasso to sketch: “Bob Geldof was sitting outside. King’s Road is not what it used to be.” Of arriving at a locked psychiatric ward, she wrote: “I may have looked like a reincarnation of Jesus Christ. At times, I felt I was Jesus. This is quite common amongst psychiatric in-patients in these psychiatric institutions of ours.”

As my interest in Amiss and her life and work grew, I asked the archive project managers to put me in touch with her niece and nephew, Kate Tunnicliff and Steve Weatherell, who donated her archive. I meet them in a busy restaurant overlooking King’s Cross, a place where Audrey liked to go and draw. They both talk of how surprised they were at the quantity of material she left behind, which was mostly hidden away in her home. “I thought of Audrey as my aunt the typist who was actually an artist,” Steve says, “but I never saw many of her pictures.” Kate nods: “I thought her lithographs were really good when I was little, but that might have been because they were the more approachable of her art. The whole modern art thing didn’t touch our family, so Audrey’s later paintings just seemed a bit mad really. It wasn’t until more recently that I’ve looked at them in a different way.”

One of the pictures from the Amiss archive.
One of the pictures from the Amiss archive. Photograph: Wellcome Library Archive

Eager to put a voice to Amiss, I ask what she sounded like. Kate says: “She had a north-east accent and when she was talking it was in this very emphatic manner – sometimes out of the side of her mouth and sometimes in funny accents. There was this one time I was running a restaurant in Queen’s Gate and I had a day off and went back the next day and they said, ‘A woman with an American accent came to find you and said she had slung her horse up outside’ and it was clearly Audrey.” Steve adds: “She always said and did exactly what she wanted to.” Kate says: “I do remember as a child, she’d be very quiet at the table and then really start shouting. I knew then she wasn’t ordinary. She used to dress in nun-like, old-fashioned clothes, wore a crucifix and had bizarre haircuts.” I tell them how Amiss had written in her diary that she’d left her hairdressers “with the appearance of Reggie Kray”.

As Amiss’s writing often revolves around her neighbours, I arrange to meet Jenny Rhodes, who lived in the maisonette above Amiss as a child and who, as a student, moved next door, where she still lives. But first, as I arrive at her address in Clapham, south London, one summer evening, I look at Amiss’s maisonette, where she lived for 50 years, 30 of those with her mother, Belle, who sold the family home-cum-shop in Sunderland to be with her. Inside these walls, every day, and long into the night, she would listen to her radio, once writing about how she had discovered Mark Radcliffe and Stuart Maconie on BBC 6 Music: “I have decided that they must be some kind of off-beat psychiatrists… They help give relief to people under siege.”

Eventually, I knock on Rhodes’s door and she gives me a welcoming hug. She is in her mid-30s, with a tumble of blond hair, and speaks softly. “When I came back in the late 90s, Audrey would come round and say she could feel something from the microwave and ask for it to be turned off. I do remember an incident when Audrey beat up the butcher across the road. I used to see her a lot in Poynders Road, string around her neck with her keys on. Walking and talking. When she was out she always looked to be on a mission. I did see her with a small placard once. It said: ‘Justice for Lunatics.’”

Amiss wrote: “I think the civil service as a whole is unpopular and that is a reason why I am unpopular. I was a very minor civil servant but nevertheless, a civil servant.” She worked for the Ministry of Labour before being transferred to Stockwell unemployment benefit office, where Gill Tayleur became her manager in 1985. Eight years ago, Gill became a reverend and when I meet her at her home in south London, I am slightly disappointed that she isn’t wearing her dog collar. She laughs and says when she was ordained she sent a photograph to Amiss, who wrote back saying: “Oh my word! Look at you!” She adds that while Amiss had a deep belief in God, “the ways she expressed it in worship were very varied”.

We talk over a pot of tea, around a homely table, and I wonder if I’m sitting where Amiss had once sat. Tayleur confirms this. “We’d sit here, just like this, she’d plonk herself down with slightly odd bags. Her outfits were always extraordinary, with bizarre badges and earrings that didn’t match.” Tayleur talks of being fast-tracked though the civil service. “There I was, aged 23, with a large staff and one of them was Audrey Amiss the typist. I always liked her. I used to call her my funny friend Audrey.”

Carol Morley looks through the pictures in the archive.
Carol Morley looks through the pictures in the archive. Photograph: Thomas SG Farnetti/Wellcome Library Archive

Recalling one of the hospitals Amiss was in, Tayleur says: “It was horrible. An old former asylum. Dark, tiny windows with bars. I remember coming out of there and bursting into tears… My father had psychiatric problems when I was a teenager and I was treated badly over it; my best friend’s mother told me she could never speak to me again because my dad was in a ‘loony bin’. So the first time I knew Audrey had gone into a psychiatric hospital I went to visit her and I kept visiting her over the years. She was always very sedated and adamant in her mind that it was wicked that she’d been sectioned.”

Tayleur shows me two letters from Amiss that she kept. “I had so many. Most I threw away – probably because they were often incomprehensible ramblings and rantings, bless her – but she wrote to me about being diagnosed with schizophrenia. Though she never accepted it or certainly didn’t accept she needed medication for it.”

Pointing to Audrey’s 1950s lithograph of Venice hanging prominently on her wall, Tayleur says: “I’m so glad she gave it to me. I’m not artistic, and a lot of her work is lost on me, but that I had framed. I don’t move among artists. If anyone asks me if I have any artist friends, I think, ‘Oh, hold on, Audrey Amiss was!’ She was a breath of fresh air. She showed me things about the world I wouldn’t have seen.”

I travel to Wetherby, near Leeds, to meet Dorothy and John Weatherell, described by their children Kate and Steve as “northern optimists”. Dorothy was four years younger than Amiss and her only sibling. I feel close to Dorothy and John as soon as I meet them, perhaps because I’ve read so much about them via Amiss. As John drives us to their home, I ask Dorothy what she remembers of Amiss’s original breakdown. “I remember going down on the train to London and even though it was summer my hands and my feet were cold because I didn’t know what I was going to find down there. And how my mother managed I don’t know… ”

We arrive at their flat and Dorothy and I sit on the terrace with a dramatic view over the river Wharfe. “Audrey and I both loved being near rivers,” Dorothy says. “Growing up, we had very much the same tastes. We used to listen to The Goon Show.” Dorothy’s expression turns wistful. “But Audrey changed. We grew apart and we’d once had such fun together.”

Audrey outside Gill Tayleur’s house: ‘She was a breath of fresh air.’
Audrey outside Gill Tayleur’s house: ‘She was a breath of fresh air.’ Photograph: Wellcome Library Archive

Laid out on the table are photographs, including a black-and-white photo of Amiss as a girl with Shirley Temple looks. “My cousin in America tried to analyse what happened to Audrey,” Dorothy says. “She said she was a lovely little girl with curly hair, always happy, but as she came to teenage years her hair got greasy and she retired into her shell and art encouraged her to do that. We felt the Royal Academy gave her the more modern ideas because up until then everything had been about representation and so cleverly detailed. She sank deeper into rather incomprehensible paintings and drawings.”

Dorothy picks up a colour snapshot of Audrey in a cafe. “In her teenage years she wouldn’t say boo to a goose, but as she got older she didn’t like being sensible. We were always trying to dampen her down, which of course was very naughty of us as far as her artistic qualities are concerned. But I mean, we had to live as well… ” Dorothy smiles. “Oh, she was always getting into scrapes. Audrey laughed like a drain when she told me she’d kicked a security guard in the seat of his pants. I can laugh now, but I could hardly bear to listen to her telling me at the time.”

John joins us, his eyes scanning all the photos from the past. “What I find amazing,” he says, “is that you associate mental problems with depression, but that was not Audrey at all. She was interested in everything.” Dorothy agrees, adding: “The only time I ever saw her depressed was when she was on medication.” Amiss mentions medication a lot in her writings: “I don’t need it and the doctors, social workers and police are a laughing stock for insisting I do. Quack quack… I think psychiatrists regard high spirits as a disorder and effectively stamp it out.”

I meet Tom Craig, professor of social and community psychiatry, at King’s College, and talk to him about the medical side of psychiatry. He says: “People – certainly with the older drugs – would much rather there was some non-medical way, because intuitively they recognise their illness is manifested in some kind of problem with people and how they see themselves.” Although Amiss wrote how she had once proposed marriage to one of her psychiatrists, I feel I’m betraying her by meeting someone from the psychiatric profession, but when I ask Craig why he entered the field, I am reassured by his answer. He says: “The reason I came to psychiatry is down to personal healing. Healing people through talk, that was appealing. But I found it wasn’t as simple as that. The role has demands put upon us by society that we would rather not fulfil but we have to – to section people.”

One of the many paintings now in the Wellcome archive in London. Audrey painted this one aged 14.
One of the many paintings now in the Wellcome archive in London. Audrey painted this one aged 14. Photograph: Wellcome Library Archive

Drawn to see Amiss’s origins, I travel to Sunderland, where I visit her grammar school, her now boarded-up art college and the docks where her father had been laid off, remaining unemployed for five years before starting up the shop with Belle. I arrive outside Amiss’s childhood home. The side wall where the shop window and entrance were has been filled in with brick, but a different shade, so I can still see the traces of what it once was. I think of everything Amiss has left behind and how her whole adult life she fought to gain attention for her opinions and her art, including debating at Speakers’ Corner and putting on exhibitions of her work. I visualise her, in the 1940s, inside this neat, orderly, symmetrical house, creating a comic book called the “We Won’t Tell Club”, some of the pages invisible, with young Amiss writing: “When it is heated in front of the fire it becomes visible.” It seems fitting that this connects her to Henry Wellcome, who founded Wellcome, invisible ink being the first product he promoted at the start of his career.

I walk to the nearby seafront, to the Cat and Dog Steps that Amiss once sketched, and watch the waves crash against the rocks below. I reflect on the day I entered the revolving glass doors of the Wellcome building to begin the screenwriting fellowship. I never knew where it would lead or what I would find inside, among the vast treasures of knowledge, archives and possibilities that it holds. But I suddenly feel that rather than me having found Amiss, she has found me. And I know with certainty that I will do whatever it takes to bring her art and life into view, to work towards making a film about her and to make sure that Audrey Amiss will finally be heard and seen.

The 2016 recipient of the Wellcome screenwriting fellowship in partnership with BFI and Film4 will be announced on 23 November


Carol Morley

The GuardianTramp

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