Human Abnormalities

Bryan Charnley – The Self Portrait Series

For the past two years, I have studied Psychology A level and at the moment we are studying the topic of Schizophrenia. Since my Grandma suffered from the mental illness herself, I’ve always felt a deep connection with the illness and always wondered how her, and any other sufferer’s, perception of the world differed from mine – the work of Bryan Charnley illustrates this

I first became aware of Charnley’s artwork as it was a specific case study showcased in our psychology textbook, and I was immediately fascinated. Bryan John Charnley was born on the 20th September 1949 in Stockton on Tees, Middlesbrough, UK, but later resided in Bedford. At the age of 18 he suffered a nervous breakdown but was able to study at The Leicester School of Art later that year and eventually gained a place at the Central School of Art and Design in London in 1969. However, he was unable to complete his course as he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Charnley as a young student, 1970

Schizophrenia is a mental disorder characterised by a withdrawal from reality and is not associated with multiple personality disorder, like many people mistakenly think. Schizophrenia itself, wasn’t identified as a mental disorder until the early 20th century and symptoms include: experiencing a set of behaviours out of touch with reality e.g. hallucinations (the perception of something being real which does not truly exist), delusions (a false belief that is resistant to confrontation with the truth), affective flattening (speaking in one tone so can’t tell emotions, little eye contact etc…), alogia (a reduction in an expression to communicate verbally) and avolition (a lack of motivation to do anything e.g. go to work, keep up with personal hygiene etc). About 1% of people suffer worldwide from Schizophrenia, so it is extremely rare; however, it still is an exhausting and incredibly isolating mental illness to live with. Therefore, it can be extremely hard for non-sufferers to understand as they themselves, can’t fully experience what the sufferer is going through. This is why I think Charnley’s artwork is so significant as it offers non-sufferers an insight into a sufferer’s mind, and thus further awareness is created of the mental illness.

Charnley first began the self portrait series in March 1991 to showcase his illness. He experimented with varying dosages of his medication (Depixol and Tryptisol) throughout each painting of himself – therefore, each self portrait reflects how his concept of “self” changed with the illness throughout the changing dosage of medication. He was encouraged to also keep a diary of his thoughts throughout the project as well. The whole project consists of 17 portraits and accompanying journal entries (apart from the penultimate and final portraits). In July 1991 Charnley took his own life, with the final self-portrait still on his easel.

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After Charnley took his own life, his self portrait series was exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in 1995. Bryan Charnley intended his work to showcase the humanity of suffering from schizophrenia, using his passion to illustrate this – artwork. As a result of his artwork, increased awareness for schizophrenia has been evident all over the world, e.g. teaching about the mental illness to students, and thus Charnley’s artwork lives on as does his message…

“Painting is pain with a tea

And music such sweet sympathy…” 

Bryan Charnley 1991

To see the whole collection of Charnley’s self portrait series (including his diary entries for this project), as well as his other works visit

For more information about Schizophrenia visit

All images courteously of


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