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> > > Bobby Baker’s Diary Drawings: Mental illness and me, 1997-2008

David Watson reviews Bobby Baker's exhibition and accepts a helpline information sheet on the way in

sketchbook drawing by Bobby Baker with chemical paraphernalia on it. Inside a drawn glass vessel is an image of a crouching person Photograph © Andrew Whittuck

Day 400 from Bobby Baker's series of Diary Drawings

Image: Photograph © Andrew Whittuck

I like to think I’m a fairly cultured, urbane fellow. I appreciate the merits of a decent Rioja, I stay awake most of the time when I’m at the theatre (and not just at pantos), and I always turn off my mobile in art galleries and churches.

But until I attended the recent opening of Bobby Baker’s Diary Drawings, I'd never been handed a list of helpline numbers (including the Samaritans) on my way into an exhibition. This list is no cynical gimmick, however, and reflects Baker’s genuine concern about the upsetting nature of some of her images.

As one of Britain’s most fearless and conspiratorial performance artists, the confessional nature of her material has always been Bobby Baker’s greatest strength, laying bare the highs and lows of her own life, often to comic effect.

Regarding her Diary Drawings, however, even those familiar with her work will be stunned by the rawness and pain evident in this exhibition. Beginning in 1997, when she became a patient at a day centre, the drawings chart Baker’s 11-year odyssey through the mental health system from diagnosis to recovery.

Originally a private, therapeutic means for Baker to address her own thoughts and feelings, the drawings became a way for Baker to communicate her fears and emotions to loved ones and healthcare professionals.

Colourful and deceptively simple in their execution, the 159 drawings on display (selected from more than 700) offer a stark and brutally honest snapshot of Baker’s treatment while she gets on with the business of trying to maintain a life: raising a family, forging a successful career as an artist, battling breast cancer.

Often harrowing, the drawings, like the best of Baker’s work, are also very funny. Unsettling images of self-harm and naked vulnerability hang next to paranoia-fuelled blueprints of farcically ram-raiding psychiatric clinics and jolly images of mayhem (Bobby cheerfully bashing her counsellor’s brains in with a cricket bat).

Dark and subversive, the Diary Drawings represent Bobby Baker’s own personal long, dark night of the soul - a night that, thankfully, she’s seen through to the dawn.

Go to the Wellcome website for more information about dates and times