‘A View of the Laundry, St James’ Hospital, Portsmouth’, painted by Edward King. Scroll down for Bernie C Byrnes’s piece inspired by this painting.
‘A View of the Laundry, St James’ Hospital’, by Edward King (image courtesy of Portsmouth Museums ©)
A View of the Laundry, St James’ Hospital, Portsmouth (1950)
by Bernie C. Byrnes
Shock is the refuge of the recently bereaved. Like the silence that follows a bomb blast. Edward King couldn’t allow himself to grieve. He found himself instead marooned in misery. Unexpressed tears never go away. Depression, we’re told, is nature’s way of shutting down the nervous system, a necessary step along the path of healing: ‘allow your sadness and emptiness to cleanse you and it will leave as soon as it has served its purpose.’ What they don’t tell you is that it takes years and sometimes never goes away. King took up residence where others visit, lodged himself in permanent depression.
Withdrawn so deeply in despair he had no use for society once his wife had gone. Preferring broken windows to the ‘windows of the soul’, he seldom painted people. Faces, when present, often an indistinct smudge: a perfect horse led by a swirling blur. Humanity reduced to pointless lumps of flesh – no eyes or mouths, as unable to express their thoughts as he was: straightjacketed silent scenes of sea and sky expressing the bleak and abandoned landscapes of his mind.
King caught the Laundry’s delicate relationship of bricks, its elevation and its panoramic views. He did not paint the women who laboured in its damp insides, reducing its unseen army to a plume of steam chugging into a cloudy sky. Portraits, even of him, show frozen captives, zombie-like, on paintings that he largely gave away. Where are the pictures of his wife: their first house – windows intact – a domestic scene peeping and shielded by dependable brick and glass? Where are the pictures of her sleeping, cat on lap, or smiling patiently surrounded by mugs of tea and artists’ oils?
King didn’t illustrate her passing but it’s there, hiding inside his work. He didn’t record the chronic and persistent cough or blood-filled sputum, fatigue or lack of appetite, weight loss, or fever, or night sweats, painting instead a city with its face blown off, numerous gaping buildings reduced to rubble in the all-too-familiar hues of drying blood: an overabundance of coagulating reds and soiled browns. A war-torn city caught by a war-torn mind, leaking his madness out one brush stroke at a time. Interiors made visible only through damage. A ragged invasion of privacy revealing not just how people lived but also how their houses were constructed: a naked girder, a torn floorboard caught off-guard under a blasted carpet and an upturned chair. King caught it all.
Was that why he wouldn’t speak? Worried that dropping his façade would bring the whole house tumbling down. Insides kept hidden except in response to violent external force. But the human brain sees faces everywhere. The Laundry has a face, eyes squeezed into lines, nostrils flared, a gaping mouth caught in perpetual scream, is that a lintel or a perfect set of teeth? A lone survivor abandoned in an empty universe. How long before he could no longer recall his own wife’s face, a cherished memory replaced by a swirling blur?
King could not have survived a life outside St James’s. Without Amelia he fell derelict. Unresponsive to his body’s basic needs he crumbled. As shattered and as blown apart as the city that he painted in its paralysed serenity. Only the mornings after the evenings’ bombing raids made their way onto his canvases, not the scenes of carnage as they happened. Only the shocked stillness that followed the bombs that shredded Portsmouth got preserved. No chaos touched his work. King – himself caught like a fly in the amber of his grief – recorded no panic in his art, only a blasted calm. Cloistered in wretchedness on the outskirts of the city, he built an Anderson shelter of his mind, giving no inkling of the horrors that took place in the nightmare hours which followed that first calamitous assault.
We lived in St James’s when I was a child, a perk of my mother’s job. On dark days my feet still carry me back to Milton Locks and St James’s grounds where the comfort of childhood waits patiently for me whenever I need it. Little of King’s rural idyll now remains. Portsmouth has grown too big for its little island, like a schoolboy outgrowing his uniform too close to the end of year to do anything about it. The parking problems, like the ankle-grazing trousers, a constant embarrassment, potential flashpoint, an unaddressed symptom of expansion. Pretending that upwards isn’t the only option left, the city slouches sideways. The house we lived in now has another house built in the space between the neighbours and where we used to park the car and put the bins. A strange lopsided dwelling: one-up, one-down. Thirty-one-million vehicles a year pass by the Sails of the South.
St James’s Laundry was not destroyed by bombs, a grubbier fate awaits: demolished to make way for housing. Another safe haven due to be destroyed in the name of progress. They’re closing the asylums because asylum has become a dirty word even for those fleeing another city with its face blown off. Overpopulation is making us all insane. Travel reports show footage of Portsmouth as a peaceful place, no discernible movement in the gridlocked traffic, the cars sprawled out and dozing in the seaside sun. Inside, their drivers rage.
King was overcrowded by his grief: each hopeful impulse bumper to bumper with the thought in front and going nowhere, his outward calm hiding the storm within. His only means of expression was impressionism: apparent stillness that throbs with the march of time. A dismal palette capped off by cloudy skies captured the sea but not the rage inside.
© Bernie C. Byrnes (2017)
Bernie C Byrnes
Bernie is an established theatrical practitioner, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a member of the Guild of Directors. She has staged work nationally and internationally including projects at The Globe and with the RSC. Bernie has worked alongside Stephen Pimlott, Ed Hall, Michael Attenborough, Gareth Armstrong and Wayne Sleep and is an award-winning writer/director/dramaturg.
I find this sort of cross-art form project inspiring. I have lived experience of mental illness and believe we should be talking more openly about it so this project appealed to me. Originally I didn’t know much about Edward King but I am very fond of St James’s. I have discovered a love of King’s work through this project.
I chose ‘A View of the Laundry, St James’ Hospital’, because I used to live in St James’s grounds as a child (my mother worked there). I loved this building.Bernie C Byrnes
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All Edward King images used on this website are courtesy of Portsmouth Museums ©.