DENISE BARKLEY discovers how one artist used the power of the portrait to help terminally ill patients

The healing power of a portrait was vividly illustrated to art therapist Dr Susan Carr when she started working with an elderly patient at Prospect Hospice in Wroughton.

“I have enjoyed painting portraits since my teenage years and a recognition of the therapeutic potential of portraiture became evident when I began working with an 82 year-old lady called Eileen, who attended my weekly art therapy sessions at the hospice,” said Susan, who lives in Haydon Wick.

Eileen brought in an old photograph album to show Susan, and through the photographs told the art therapist the story of her life.

“One particular photograph was of Eileen as a 10-year-old child and I was struck by the innocent beauty in her young face,” Susan revealed.

“Eileen said the dress in the photograph was significant, as it had been her Christmas present that year.

“She had been asked to choose between a toy or a dress, and she chose the dress.”

Over several weeks, Eileen and Susan co-designed the portrait together, with Eileen selecting photographs of significant events in her life, such as her wedding, which were painted as if pinned to the wall behind her.

Susan said: “As the weeks progressed, Eileen’s health deteriorated and she was admitted to the hospice in-patient unit.

“I took the portrait in to show her and, although she was very ill, her delight was obvious. ‘Oh you have painted me beautiful - I love it!’ she exclaimed.

“I told her she was a beautiful child. She said ‘Well, I have lived for 82 years and I never knew that’!”

Susan, 53, developed portrait therapy as the focus of her PhD studies from 2008 to 2015.

It is used as a way to help people who experience life-limiting or chronic illnesses, or other trauma, as a disruption to their sense of self-identity.

“Patients at the hospice would often describe the impact of their diagnosis, treatment and illness as having changed their sense of self-identity beyond all recognition, characterised by statements such as ‘I don’t know who I am any more’ or ‘I’m not the person I used to be’,” Susan explained.

“I believe in the power of art to heal, inspire, delight and transform, as well as to communicate fundamental truths.”

She was inspired by the work of First World War artist-surgeon Henry Tonks, who produced before and after surgery portraits of soldiers with facial injuries.

The Tonks Collection, held by the Royal College of Surgeons, is described as ‘shocking’ in its frank depiction of the awful injuries but ‘characterised by an astonishing sensitivity’.

Tonks was called upon to depict the work of surgeon Harold Gilles, who was clearly ahead of his time in recognising the significance and value of art in providing a ‘more rounded record’ of his patients, and the importance of psychological support.

Susan worked with seven patients at Prospect Hospice, including Eileen, and believes that collaboratively painting their portraits, and creating 3D artworks, helped them greatly.

Since then, five of them have passed away, but the portraits continue to be cherished by their relatives.

“Originally I asked my group if they would like to create their own portraits, but there was stony silence - and then laughter!” Susan smiled.

“No-one was up for it, but they all wanted me to paint them.

“So I revised the terms of engagement – they loved being the centre of attention, and it encouraged them to talk, stories that many had waited a lifetime to tell, like a 92 year-old gentleman who had served in the war.

“His tales of heroism, fear and comradeship were very moving, how he had been broken and then remade. Certainly, some of it was quite difficult to hear.”

Susan paints mainly in oils but uses other mediums where the subject dictates it, such as pastels to create Being Pandora, which was in the style of Gabrielle Rossetti’s painting Pandora.

She explained: “I gave patients the chance to look through a book of portraits, both famous and non-famous, as a way into portraiture, and they would often exclaim ‘Paint me this way’!”

A patient called Rose asked to be painted in the classic Freddie Mercury pose from Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, as he was her idol.

This painting adorns the front cover of Susan’s book Portrait Therapy, to be published by Jessica Kingsley on September 21.

Susan, who lives with her partner and has two sons James, 29, and Matthew, 27, is including 39 moving and inspirational portraits of participants in her PhD research project in her exhibition, Paint Me This Way! at Swindon Museum and Art Gallery from today until September 10.

Susan’s passion for art goes back to childhood. Brought up in Gibraltar, where her father worked in the building trade, she recalls visiting London when she was 14.

“Dad asked what I wanted to see and I said I wanted to go to all the art galleries in London!” she laughed. “I think we managed a couple.”

Susan did a BA in Design and Illustration at Swindon School of Art and became interested in the use of art as therapy when working with troubled teenagers in the exclusion unit at Hreod Parkway School.

This led her to study for an MA in art therapy and she went on to work, for 12 years, as art therapist at Prospect Hospice.

She loves living in Swindon and says the town and surrounding countryside are a great source of inspiration for her paintings.

Having left her job at the hospice in March, she is now developing her private portrait therapy business.

She wants to do more research and is particularly interested in working with members of the Armed Forces suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

She is keen to get funding for this, and it could lead to a touring exhibition.

Susan’s favourite relaxation is painting en plein air – outdoors.

“I went on a course in Holland three years ago and I’m a little bit addicted,” she grinned.

“I’m out there in all weathers in my thermals and wet weather gear with an umbrella attached to my easel – I get into something called ‘the flow’ and I don’t even realise how cold I am!”