A Portrait of the Artist as a Schizophrenic: A look at Peter Burton’s portraits

As a teenager Peter Burton was a prolific painter intent on pursuing a career as an artist. His plans came to a grinding halt aged 19. Peter had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, promptly losing all interest in producing artwork.

Water colour, AO3 portrait of bald man

After a lengthy hiatus spanning almost three decades, Peter shocked his family when he unexpectedly returned to painting. The hard work and dedication of his sister Tina Burton, a lecturer at Cambridge School of Art, has resulted in Peter’s first public exhibition at the age of 52. His work is currently showing at The Brick Lane Gallery, London, as part of the Autumn Portraits series.

Funding

Using the crowd funding website Kickstarter to generate funds, Tina raised over £1000 to cover the gallery fee and the material costs needed to put on the exhibition. “It became a community project.  Donations mainly came from people we know, but others were just touched by Peter’s story.”

Illness

Peter spent much of his 30 year break from painting living in a mental hospital in Maidstone. In 2008 he returned to his hometown of Rainham, Kent. The return to these familiar surroundings ignited within Peter a desire to start producing art again. He began to create portraits of family members and famous faces, including David Bowie and the Queen.

His chaotic, expressionist style Tina suggests is evocative of his mental state: “The portraits give good insight into his internal condition. We didn’t set out to purposefully raise awareness about schizophrenia – we just wanted to blow people away.”

“We didn’t set out to purposefully raise awareness about schizophrenia – we just wanted to blow people away”

Peter’s schizophrenia prevents him from talking openly about his art: “He doesn’t have that insight. He is severely schizophrenic.”  Tina has taken on the role of promoting his career.

Tina was initially hesitant about publicising details of her brother’s mental health condition. “I wasn’t sure when approaching galleries if we should tell them or not. People can be prejudiced. But you have to be transparent. You can easily read his illness in his work.

The Exhibition

The exhibition at The Brick Lane Gallery runs until 20 October. His work will then be taken to Edinburgh and displayed at The Gallery in the Corner, a venue dedicated to promoting the work of artists with a physical or mental health condition.

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