Cambridge Film Festival 2023: Director Carol Morley tells how Typist Artist Pirate King explores the secret life on an unknown artist
Alex Spencer speaks to Carol Morley, the writer-director of Typist Artist Pirate King, which is showing at the forthcoming Cambridge Film Festival.
When film director Carol Morley opened up an unsorted box from a medical archive’s collection of ‘patient art’ she had no idea she was about to make one of the most exciting discoveries of her career.
Out tumbled the life’s work of unknown artist Audrey Amiss, whose arresting drawings, fascinating diaries and habit of writing to the Sherlock Holmes Society to update them on the search for her missing sock quickly became an obsession for Carol.
As she lifted out the possessions that had been removed from Audrey’s desk after she died, the elderly woman’s passport stopped Carol in her tracks.
“I’d never heard of Audrey, nobody had, and her archive at that point was within the Wellcome Collection, which is the biggest science charity in the world,” says Carol.
“I had a screenwriting fellowship to spend a year there looking at their collections and I came across that one because somebody said to me: ‘I think they have a collection here of somebody who collected the wrappers of everything she ate every day’. And I just was like, who's that? So, I got in touch with the archivist and at that point Audrey’s work wasn't catalogued. It was in deep storage because it was quite a recent collection so they hadn't yet started to work through it.
“The first box I was given I was told I had two hours to look through, but I spent the whole day and then I just got more and more obsessed with looking at the boxes. One of the boxes was really big and it was everything that had been swept off her table in her flat, along with her original passport. It was from the days when you used to have to put your occupation in your passport, and she had written: Typist, Artist, Pirate, King. So I knew at that point that she'd given me the title for the film I was going to make.”
Audrey Amiss had been what’s known as a ‘revolving door’ psychiatric patient, meaning she was in an out of hospital. She was born in Sunderland and had been a talented artist who studied at the Royal Academy of Arts but never completed her studies as she was hospitalised following a breakdown and was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. She never returned to college, instead training as a shorthand typist and working in the civil service.
She was looked after as a ‘care in the community’ patient and when she died in 2013 her family, sister Dorothy and a nephew and niece, had to decide what to do with her collection of more than 50,000 sketches and paintings. They eventually donated her work and belongings to the Wellcome Collection, and it was stored under the heading of patient art.
Carol used this archive of Audrey’s work, as well as many hours of interviews with family, friends and former colleagues, to inform her screenplay for the movie Typist Artist Pirate King. The film is about a fictionalised road trip with Audrey, played by Monica Dolan, and her psychiatric nurse, played by Kelly Macdonald. They set off to the north east in a bid to have her work exhibited in a gallery.
Carol says: “She never actually went on a journey with her psychiatric nurse, but the film does contain a lot of real events, including that she didn’t see her sister for six years. I always knew that the film would be from Audrey’s point of view, in Audrey’s world. Her sister Dorothy died before she could see the film, but she read the screenplay and said thank you for giving me my Audrey back, which was very moving.”
Audrey was “very much of her time in the 1950s,” says Carol, who noted that after her first hospitalisation, Audrey “abandoned the boundaries of the art that she'd been taught and began to experiment”.
“I think, in art terms, she became a modernist,” she continues. “She became somebody that would not draw the whole picture or would draw with her eyes shut sometimes so she became much more conceptual and abandoned the more formal approaches to making art.”
Audrey said of her own talent: “I was once in the tradition of social realism, also called the kitchen sink school of painting. But I am now avant garde and misunderstood.”
But it wasn’t just the art that drew in Carol as a filmmaker. It was Audrey’s extraordinary vitality and personality that came through in her letters and diaries. She kept a daily record of everything she ate and pasted the food packets into her journal, with comments on the packaging designs. She was also a prolific letter writer and kept a log of the letters she sent.
One such log records a four-page letter to the Salvation Army, “explaining in all the detail I can think of the infection of thrush I have had for years”.
The film has aimed to capture Audrey’s sense of humour as well as her fears and the fact that she never accepted her diagnoses.
“I now describe her as somebody diagnosed with a mental illness, rather than saying she had a mental illness, because Audrey definitely contested it in those last six years of her life when she didn't take medication,” explains Carol.
“She gave us such a strong voice and I have wondered if her treatment had been different in the 1950s, whether she would have ended up being the revolving door psychiatric patient she became. Perhaps some intervention into that first episode of psychosis might have changed the course of her life.”
Typist Artist Pirate King is showing at the Cambridge Film Festival at 8.20pm on Thursday, October 19 and 6pm on Saturday, October 21. The fesitval takes place at the Arts Picturehouse between October 19 and 26. Visit https://www.cambridgefilmfestival.org.uk/