File Note 124: Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Mednikoff - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Hope Wolf



A Tale of Mother’s Bones: Grace Pailthorpe, Reuben Mednikoff and the Birth of Psychorealism Biography Credits

A Tale of Mother’s Bones: Grace Pailthorpe, Reuben Mednikoff and the Birth of Psychorealism

Grace Pailthorpe (1883–1971) met Reuben Mednikoff (1906–1972) in 1935. She had studied psychoanalysis; he was a trained artist. Talking with him at a party, she at first thought he might be able to assist her in ‘prizing open’ the mind of one of her patients. But they soon wanted to access their own inner worlds, beginning an ambitious investigation that would occupy them for many years. Relocating to Cornwall, they developed a practice that they came to call ‘psychorealism’. This involved painting, drawing and writing freely, then analysing both their own work and one another’s, showing what memories of childhood, infancy and even birth had been revealed in the process. Interpretations were sometimes scribbled on the backs of drawings; paintings were photographed and then annotated; hundreds of notes were kept on their use of images, colours, lines and media. Together they tested the hypothesis that art might be able to retrieve more quickly than the ‘long drawn-out couch method’ of Sigmund Freud repressed fantasies and frustrations. 

Pailthorpe claimed that the ‘unconscious […] tells a perfect short story’. The tales that she told about Mednikoff’s art revolved around the themes of disappointed love, fantasies of revenge and fears of retribution. While she has been criticised for underestimating the capacity of both the unconscious and the artwork to resist excavation, her unpublished narratives could be fascinatingly detailed and sustained (and more unwieldy than the synopses offered here). Often a new baby brother was punished for poaching mother’s milk. Sometimes fathers bore the brunt of the child’s rages. Most frequently mothers were brutalised. In a lecture delivered to psychologists on Mednikoff’s drawing, A Tale of Mother’s Bones (1936 , Fig. 1), Pailthorpe drew attention to a wretched creature with plugged breasts, a twisted neck and a misshapen hand in the lower part of the frame – the child had punished his mother for trying to wean him, attempted to steal her food, and maimed her in order to protect himself from harm. Pailthorpe surmised that Mednikoff was the dominating monster figure, dressed in a suit and tie and pretending to be his father. The artist’s technique was said to be another of his disguises: with careful crafting and tidy execution he distracted attention from the drawing’s obscene content.

The monster’s masquerade offers a metaphor for the tension between wildness and restraint in the work of Pailthorpe and Mednikoff. They exhibited with leading Surrealists in the 1930s, and Pailthorpe urged gallery-goers not to listen to the complaints of traditionalist critics, whom she associated with the scolding authority figure of ‘papa’. But ‘papa’ could not be completely ignored. Pailthorpe and Mednikoff relegated their most intimate writings to their archive, cloaked personal disclosures in experimental language (Pailthorpe’s Curucuchoo: The Autobiography of a Child at Three (1937) was written entirely in baby talk), and carefully edited the interpretations they released to the wider ‘art world’. Although Pailthorpe associated ‘painting freely, that is Surrealistically’ with ‘diarrhoea’, and brought their most elegant paintings down to earth with stories of toilet training, their work was not on the whole overwhelmingly messy. With his precise use of watercolour in The Stairway to Paradise (1936, Fig. 2), Mednikoff was said to be promising a symbolic father (temporarily kept at bay by a fire-breathing mother) that he would not wet the bed. 

Pailthorpe and Mednikoff insisted that they only showed their work in order to fund their philanthropic research. They joined other psychoanalytic thinkers of their day in looking to the nursery to explain the political forms of violence they witnessed in their lifetimes. In 1940 they emigrated to America, before moving on to Canada, seeking to protect their research materials (which included themselves) from the bombs of the Blitz. Pailthorpe described how Fascist dictators were able to ensnare the emotions of the masses by harnessing their repressed childhood furies at having to share with others. In an unpublished and undated 53,000-word tome, Psychorealism: The Sluicegate of the Emotions, Pailthorpe and Mednikoff ambitiously offered not only a diagnosis of, but also an antidote to, what they called ‘the virus of hate’. ‘Hitler and Mussolini’, they wrote, ‘would never have become insanely dictatorial had they had, as children, ample opportunity to vent their infantile rages and to lessen the emotional tension imposed by fears and frustrations.’

Pailthorpe’s art was also political for its struggles with patriarchy, although her criticisms were often presented indirectly. With portraits of crying babies (see cover image) she expressed the anger of the adult woman clamouring for freedom. These were painted and drawn as part of an investigation into ‘birth trauma’ (experienced by the baby rather than the mother), and Pailthorpe used them to explain why she felt ‘suffocated’ each time she was prevented from acting freely. She tried, for instance, to make sense of the ‘almost maniacal hate’ she felt when wearing ‘old-fashioned skirts’ by suggesting that this experience brought to the surface memories of struggling for space in the womb. She also wrote of the baby’s belief that birth was a punishment for its kicking, and went on to narrate her life as a punishments. This included punishment for kicking against the rules of the Plymouth Brethren, the strict religious sect in which she grew up (the theme of Biblical retribution appears in her 1937 painting Father’s Waistcoat, Fig. 3: Noah and the animals flee God’s punishing flood by climbing on the back of an enormous monster). Pailthorpe also wrote of her fears of being punished for kicking against conventions about how a woman should act. This she did frequently, working in roles usually reserved for men. 

Prior to meeting Mednikoff, Pailthorpe had worked as a surgeon in the First World War (she was posted to hospitals in the UK, France and Greece), and then as a doctor to a gold-mining community in Western Australia. In 1932 she published a book, What We Put in Prison, which argued for ‘the necessity for psychological treatment of the so-called criminal and asocial individual’. Challenging the usual hierarchies between the sexes, she also took the lead in investigations with Mednikoff. While, in his analytic notes, he frequently referred to her as a symbolic ‘Mother’ (and he sometimes became ‘Father’ to her), he also played down her femininity, calling her either Doc or Barry, referencing the male pseudonym, Barry Taverner, that she used to publish poetry. In an essay in the artists’ archive on the subject of ‘intellectual hermaphroditism’, it was argued that the human brain had both male and female aspects, which combined in the creation of new ideas. The essay speculated that, in the future, more advanced ideas would be made by men and women working together. These reflections offer some clues as to why the artists often depicted fantastical beasts with both male and female body parts.

Pailthorpe and Mednikoff never published, as they hoped to do, a book on their research. In the late 1940s Pailthorpe started running art therapy classes at the Portman Clinic in London (which branched from the Institute for the Scientific Treatment of Delinquency that Pailthorpe co-founded in 1932, and is now part of the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust), assisted by Mednikoff who in 1948 had changed his name to Richard Pailthorpe. In 1951 he noted that ‘atomic bombs made the whole idea of helping humanity a fiasco’, and in 1953 set up the Little Georgian Antiques Shop in Battle, East Sussex. Nonetheless, they continued to paint and draw until the end. Without accompanying interpretations, their late works might be understood in the light of the artists’ renewed interest in the occult and in Theosophy: Mednikoff’s description of the ‘astral body’ as ‘fluidic and palpitating’ resonates with their watercolour washes (Fig. 4). Yet he continued to write about his experiences using the tales about early life that he and Pailthorpe had developed together. Anticipating the loss of his collaborator and companion in 1966, he lamented: 

‘The terror of being without Barry, when she dies, is strongly present again. It means being left alone, defenceless, & without the loving mother-womb person. She is the only one who really understands my needs, i.e. the womb knows how I like to live – unmolested, content, & left alone to amuse myself, which womb-life was.’


Grace Pailthorpe (1883–1971) had a strict religious upbringing, and was the only girl in a family of nine brothers. Having trained in medicine, she served as a surgeon in the First World War, and worked as a medical officer in Western Australia. Returning to the UK, she turned her attention from the body to the mind, studying psychoanalysis, researching the psychology of women in prisons, and co-founding the Institute for the Scientific Treatment of Delinquency in 1932. When she met Reuben Mednikoff in 1935, they began an extraordinary collaborative investigation into how art might be used to free the mind and achieve better self-knowledge.

Reuben Mednikoff (1906-1972) was twenty-three years younger than Grace Pailthorpe and had studied at St Martin’s School of Art. He encouraged Pailthorpe to paint and draw, and in the 1930s they exhibited with leading Surrealist artists both nationally and internationally. They preferred to view their work as philanthropic ‘research’ rather than as ‘art’, and developed a method that they hoped would offer a cure for what they called the ‘virus of hate’. In the final period of their lives, they continued to seek antidotes for aggression, fusing their psychoanalytic ideas with their interests in the occult and in spiritual philosophies.


Hope Wolf is a Lecturer in Modernism at the University of Sussex.

Curated by Hope Wolf, with Rosie Cooper, Martin Clark and Gina Buenfeld