‘We all have to suffer, and nobody escapes...’

The founder of a long-lasting movement of surrealist artists has described how she used her work to cope with the death of her 21-year-old son.

Brigid Marlin has effectively turned her home in Castle Hill, Berkhamsted, into her own private art gallery.

Brigid Marlin.

Brigid Marlin.

She is the creator and chairman of the Society for Art of Imagination, which has more than 400 members and artists based in 23 different countries.

The 77-year-old formed the movement, then called Inscape, in 1961 because she could not get her work displayed in London.

She said: “I was told I could not be in a London exhibition, because I was a woman and I was an unknown in the city.

“I went back home and seethed and steamed and gnashed my teeth.

“I decided they can ignore one person, but they cannot ignore a whole movement, so I founded the Inscape group to portray the inner landscape in art.

“I was ambitious. I was not one for putting things under the bed. What’s the point?”

Inscape became an American charity and was renamed the Society for Art of Imagination in 1993.

Brigid’s The Sick Child is an exploration of ordinary life through the eyes of her son Benny, who took his own life aged 21. She painted it in 1984, five years after his death.

The painting is of Benny in Long Chaulden, Hemel Hempstead, near where he and his family used to live. The piece depicts how an ordinary street could become a place of terror for him.

Benny had suffered from Asperger’s syndrome long before the term was coined. He was also epileptic and schizophrenic.

He had said to Brigid: “You are afraid of death, aren’t you? I look on death as a friend.”

Brigid’s A Meaning for Danny was published in 2011. It took her 20 years to write and is a tribute to Benny, who is renamed Danny in the book to protect his privacy.

Brigid said: “As a mother, if you gave birth to a child, the worst thing would be if it were wiped out and as if you never had one.”

It took her years before she could paint Benny and she said she could never have done it during his lifetime. It was too raw for her and would have hurt his feelings, she said.

She said: “It is really emotion that I am painting. It is always some emotion being expressed, but if you put raw emotion first, it’s a terrible painting. “It has got to be reflected in tranquillity or it does not work.

“When people lose their tempers, that’s not really themselves. They are beside themselves. That side you do not want to paint, because it’s like vomiting in someone’s face.

“You somehow get through whatever’s terrible, something becomes stronger in you and you build up some strength and from that strength comes a painting.

“We all have to endure suffering – nobody escapes.

“If I paint from genuine stuff inside, it has a meaning not because I am trying to make it have a meaning, because that would be artificial.

“Images just form in your mind and then you paint them. It is almost better if you do not know what they are until afterwards.”

It took Brigid three months to paint Fear At Dusk in 2004. The boy in the picture is her ‘animus’ – Carl Jung’s term for the inner male spirit hidden within female minds.

The onset of twilight and the owl with a skull for a head represent the approaching death of her mother Hilda Vanstockum.

Hilda was very famous in Ireland, where she grew up, and had published 25 children’s book as well as being an acclaimed painter of still lifes, landscapes and portraits. Realism was a key theme of her work.

Brigid began painting when she was two, but always preferred to focus on surrealism.

She said: “It is in me. It is what I am. It is not like I went out and thought I will become a surrealist.

“It began as a little girl painting fairies, elves, spirits of trees and the dawn, that kind of stuff – fantasy. There darker stuff came as I got older.”

Brigid was taught the Mische technique of mixing oil and egg tempera to preserve and add volume to paintings by acclaimed Austrian artist Ernst Fuchs.

To learn more about the organisation, visit www.artofimagination.org

For a video tour of the paintings Brigid has displayed around her home, visit our websites later this week. You can also buy A Meaning for Danny on www.amazon.co.uk for £22.46.