UK TOUR DAY TWO (LONDON): William Kurelek was one of the most successful artists in the history of our country. He's famous for his quaint, Canadian scenes: lumberjacks, snowballs fights, city streets and prairie fields. But he also had a darker side: apocalyptic visions, battles with depression, suicide attempts and a long stint in England to get psychiatric help at a couple of hospitals in London — including about a dozen bouts of electroshock therapy. I wrote a whole big blogpost about his life a few months ago, before heading to the UK to leave dreams for him at some of the Kurelek-related spots in London.
It would have been Gandhi's tube station for a while, too. While studying law at University College in the late 1800s, he lived just a few doors down from Kurelek's place:
At the same time, he was working at Blue Ball Yard. It's just up the street from St James's Palace — the official residence of the Sovereign — and not far at all from Buckingham Palace. Today, it's home to luxury suites and a swanky restaurant — I felt totally out of place while I quickly dropped this dream and headed on my way. But Blue Ball Yard started out as a bunch of stables all the way back in the 1700s. And when Kurelek was living in London, it was home to a picture framing business. That's where he worked, making frames.
It proved to be a valuable experience for the artist. He went on to make custom frames for many of his own works, incorporating them into the design of his pieces. And when he returned to Toronto after London, the skills he'd learned here at Blue Ball Yard helped him pay the bills. When Kurelek got his big break with the famous Canadian art dealer Avrom Isaacs, Isaacs gave him a job making frames at a shop on Front Street until his paintings started making enough money on their own.
My final Kurelek-related stop came on my last night in London. As the sun was (quite literally) setting on The Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour, I headed to South London. I came here to the Maudsley Hospital:
This is where, 62 years earlier, William Kurelek had come on his very first day in London. In fact, this hospital was the reason he'd crossed the Atlantic. After a troubled childhood, battles with depression, and a long struggle with psychosomatic eye pain and blindness, he knew he needed help. And he didn't think he could get that help in Canada, where it was even harder to find support for psychological illnesses than it is today. Back then, mental health facilities were still brutal places — but Maudsley was on the cutting edge. The doctors here embraced bold new techniques like art therapy. Painting would play an important role in Kurelek's treatment. They gave him his own supplies and even a studio to work in. He painted some of his most famous work here, at this hospital, expressing his inner torments on canvas. The most famous of them all — "The Maze" — would even be used to teach psychology students.
Kurelek struggled with his demons for the rest of his life. But it was here, at Maudsley and at a second London hospital called Nertherne, that he began the process of confronting those demons head on, learning the personal and emotional skills that would eventually allow him to become of the most successful artists our country has ever known.
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37 An Apocalypse in the Beaches
William Kurelek, 1968