‘I think hospital changed me’ — an interview with artist, Henry Cockburn

Henry Cockburn is an artist who was diagnosed with schizophrenia while he was studying at art college in Brighton. After speaking to a tree that told him that he could rap, he found himself led in a new direction, encouraged by the whispers from timber limbs in the darkness. Safe in the cocoon of the tree, he hid from men with dogs and flashlights the basis for his first painting in his series of artworks, ‘Henry’s Demons: A Dangerous Road to Recovery’.

But it’s taken 15 years to get to this point. After his 2002 diagnosis, Henry spent a period institutionalised in a mental hospital, which he escaped from numerous times, fleeing to rooftops or leaping into the freezing ocean.

The child of internationally renowned journalist Patrick Cockburn and Jan Montefiore, an English professor at the University of Kent, his story formed the basis for a book, ‘Henry’s Demons, a Father and Son’s Journey Out of Madness’, in which his father outlines his view that Henry’s mental illness may have been precipitated by years of daily cannabis use.

But, for Henry, it’s a condition that is much more multifaceted than many first assume. Gentle by nature, he’s softly spoken and eager to unravel the genesis of his exhibition. We head to a café garden on a high street that he visits often all the staff know him and greet him there. We sip coffee, and the wind rattles the umbrellas above us.  

Until the 2nd July, Henry will be showcasing his account of his journey through mental illness in an exhibition of his artwork, hosted by The Beaney Museum and art gallery.

But how does it feel to look back on a period of instability  a period that took up almost a quarter of his life and reimagine it through art?

Your art exhibition is all about the stages before, after and during being sent to hospital. What was the process of being sent there?

I went to Brighton University and I fell in love with this girl, and back then I was smoking weed every day. I liked Brighton and it was magical; the old pier, and the birds would circle over it. I was quite inhibited generally. I hadn’t really stepped off the beaten track that much I’d been to France with a friend and stuff like that but I didn’t really understand there was a lot of questions that needed answering I suppose. My art changed, you know? I liked at Jean-Michel Basquiat and I was really influenced by him, the fact that he put letters in paintings and stuff. He was one of my heroes I suppose. I tried painting like him and to do pictures with words in them.

I changed when I came back after Christmas. My Nan died. She wasn’t my grandmother but my dad had polio when he was a kid and she looked after him while he was convalescing and looked after us and when she died everything changed. She had a birthmark on one side of her face and could only see out of one eye. She was very distinctive. I went to her funeral and we were walking right through the town holding her coffin and stuff and I didn’t really think about it at the time cause was crying, but when I got back I sort of felt that I hadn’t been off the beaten track.

I was coming back on the plane and I was looking down at the fields and looking at the space between the fields and I was thinking ‘that’s where the real life is…not on the fields’.

In the hedgerows?

Yeah. And so I got back to Brighton and I bought a record player and stuff. In the morning I woke up and it was 6 a.m and I could see the seagulls outside. Time to go. I woke up, and the seagulls were directing me almost. So I went to the old pier. It was a really misty day and I saw a bloke and I said that I wanted to walk towards the sunrise; which way is the sunrise? And he said, ‘Always to the East mate, always to the East’.

So I walked East. I don’t know if you know Brighton very well, but there’s a jungle plant to the East. It said ‘Henry, I want to show you something’. 

I had this thing about black red and white being the ‘Danger’ colours, and this is where I possibly went a bit crazy. You know, black red and white stop signs, snakes and stuff.

I kept walking and I saw this bush and there were boots underneath it. They were all black, red and white. And my shoes were brown. I thought that people, nasty people, had gone under this plant and the plant had eaten them. But I thought ‘I’m alright, I’ve got brown shoes on.’ So I hid in the bush.

There was a tree there that was about 40ft high and I honestly believed that if I climbed to the top of the tree then I’d reach the gardens of Babylon. I didn’t realise at the time that Zion was good and Babylon was bad, I thought that Babylon was good.

I stood in the tree. I threw my shoes over a wall and a dog started barking at me. So I walked back to my student digs and did all the washing up, in an effort to change things. Then I went back to sleep. For the next week, I would go round barefoot. So that was the beginning.

And that was the beginning of the tree? Did you tell anyone?

No. I became a bit of a loner, you know what I mean?

What about your friends?

They all thought I’d gone weird.

How were you processing it at the time?

I started believing in magic, I suppose. I was going on a journey.

In an industrialised society, you don’t have to do a lot. But this bush was so magical that I felt there was more to it than I had thought. I did climb the bush in the end and I got to the top and there were three blokes and I heard this guy say ‘Oi, you tw*t!’. And I thought ‘This is Babylon’ [Laughs].

How long after that was it that you were arrested?

The first time I got arrested because I was going to look down into an aqueduct because I wanted to stare death in the face. But these blokes saw me and said ‘Oi, we’re gonna call the police! Stop!’. So, they bought me an orange juice and they said ‘this place needs a paint’.

And at the time I thought that paint was made out of seagull poo and that they were torturing seagulls, and I thought they were bad. So I walked off. A policeman stopped me in a shop where I buy my sketchbooks and said ‘I’d like a word’. So they dragged me off, they were carrying me like this [gestures under armpits]. And I said ‘Help, friends, please!’. But no one answered.

And I thought it was going to be like 1984 where they put you in 101 and they said ‘No, we’re police, we don’t do that’.

And someone before had told me that if you don’t stop, they’ll put you in hospital and pump you full of drugs and then you’ll be a zombie.

So they took me to a cell, and I sat there for about 6 hours. They called my mum and it was horrible and there were CCTV cameras. I thought ‘this is where people learn to breakdance’, because there’s nothing to do in a cell.

I imagined this red eye, a red circle in the middle of the wall. It was evil, man, like Sauron’s eye.

Anyway, they let me out. They said ‘Don’t climb any more walls!

The first thing I did was to climb over a wall to get back. 

Then different episode, I walk around and I started going North, away from the sea. All the white birds were going North and all the black ones, the ravens and the crows, were going the other way. And I started collecting bits of wood and bits of metal and I was holding my breath. I managed to find an orange to eat.

Walking out of Brighton, I thought ‘I’m on the run, aren’t I?

Ushered by the wind on my back, I walked. I saw a sign with ‘H’ written on it. You know the one, the black ‘H’ against the yellow for fire hydrants. But I thought it was ‘H’ for Henry. So I sat down there under a redwood tree. I could tell it wanted me to take my shoes off but I was a bit wary because I’d been arrested before. But I sat down under the tree near the train tracks and I felt the brambles pull around me. And then a train went past and the brambles loosened, and it happened a few times. They knew when the train would go past, and they’d tighten around me. And I got scared and I bolted.

I found myself under the roots of the tree and the tree started moving around me, the roots coming through over me. [Gestures over his body]. One of them came through and touched my finger and it said ‘you’re not very good at this are you?’, and a dog barked. I held my breath a really, really long time.

Did you speak to the tree again?

That night, I had a conversation with the tree and it told me quite a few things. It told me I could rap, and I said am I like Basquiat, and the tree said, ‘a bit like Basquiat’.

What, I’m a spark?

At the end of the conversation, I said ‘life isn’t a game

And the tree said ‘yeah, I’m afraid it is’.

I said I had to go back for my brother Alex. So after the conversation, a blackbird sat on the top of it, and it it sung this really sad song, I think because it knew I was going to hospital. So I got up and tried to find my trainers that I put, but it was pitch black. So I walked back and a guy said it’s 2 o’clock in the morning. I thought it would be light soon, so time moved really slowly under the tree. And then I walked back.

That’s what the picture is about. The one with the tree.

The tree looks comforting in the painting, almost womb-like.

Yeah, the tree said I was the best rapper. And I hadn’t done a rap by then, so maybe it could tell the future. But it gave me confidence and I wrote a rap about it. The tree is the first picture in the series.

The brambles are hiding me and the police are looking for me in the distance. Actually, I don’t know who it was, but they had flashlights and dogs.

Have you recently done anything like that [rapped]?

I’ve given it up man. I’m at a different chapter. Like, you know, I thought the wind was ushering me places and I was always jumping over into other people’s gardens, and I don’t do that no more, I haven’t got the guts. It’s alright if you’re a bird or a cat or something, but humans? No you walk on the streets, humans!’ That’s trespassing.

I like that [Laughs] — maybe you should have got into parkour.

Have you read The Jungle Book? This is where I got the idea. He walked in the jungle and his feet got really calloused. So I thought I’d do shock therapy and do that in the city and my feet would get calloused pretty quick. It didn’t work…well, it sort of worked, but I got arrested.

I’m still a nutter, but I’m a different sort of nutter now. I’ve got OCD and there’s this massive cliff in Ireland and you stand at the top of it and look down. It’s a 200ft drop and I dare myself to stand on the edge of it.

But yeah I think hospital changed me. To change the subject, a lot of people think that my mental illness was due to me smoking weed at a young age, and I think that’s not the case. I think that if I didn’t smoke the weed I would have take a different path and I wouldn’t have needed to do the things that I did like hiding in a tree and going in rivers and stuff.

If I’d played it straight and done all my homework and not got stoned every day and made my mum more cups of tea I think I wouldn’t have had to do that because I’d understand the world a bit better. I think if you smoke weed too young you don’t fully grow up, because being a teenager is hard enough.

I get really paranoid now. I thought drugs were so cool back then, I don’t think that anymore. Particularly with other drugs, I’m afraid of them now. Drugs can bring out the best in you and the worst as well.

At the beginning of these paintings, some of the ones in the hospital I felt like ‘this is a little f— you from me to the hospital’. But that’s not really what it’s about, it’s just trying to show people what they haven’t seen before. Like most people haven’t been in a cell, and this is just to show people. I think the magic is out there. Life has got better.

Even your depictions of the cell and the hospital — they’re not dark or miserable. There’s always this hopeful element to them because they’re so bright — you don’t have shoes on, you look kind of free and at ease. Is that because you have got happier, and you’re looking back on it?

What I’d like is for someone who doesn’t speak any English to come into the room and look at them and tell me what they see. The titles are very important. Some of the paintings, some people thought ‘oh, that’s a youth centre!’ but if you’ve been to hospital, you know it’s a hospital. They’re standing in line to get their meds. Institutionalised.

How long’s it been since you were in there?

Six years, and I was in there for 8 years. Which is like…a quarter of my life.

How many times did you try and escape?


And so what’s next?

I don’t know, I’ve been thinking that! I’ve been showing all of the most interesting parts of my life, and I’m like, what can I do now? [Laughs]

Someone said ‘oh, you should do an exhibition about saints, and tell the stories‘, but no, that’s not what I’m about.

Your last painting is called ‘Hope’ and you’re kneeling in a church. Have you been going to church?

I’ve been going to church about 3 or 4 years. I enjoy it, and the people are so nice as well, you can just leave your coat and know no one is going to nick it. I believe in Jesus I don’t believe in all the bull—, the Virgin Mary and that. I sort of believe in the resurrection.

It makes it out to be a fairytale. Life ain’t no fairytale.

What would you say to people who put the blame on cannabis for your experiences?

It’s an easy answer saying that it’s cannabis. I feel like I made a choice. It’s hard with brain chemistry saying you’ve got an imbalance in your head and that’s why you do things.

Oh you have an imbalance of serotonin in there, that’s why you take your shoes off’. No, I decided to take my shoes off.

If I was in a different culture and I was perhaps an aboriginal and I said I talked to a tree and I walked around barefoot, that wouldn’t even be bad. Or even something like my grandad who was a bishop said that he spoke to God in a white cloak and God said ‘follow me’. And that’s alright.

So why lock me up? Like I’m a danger to other people. I just think it’s weird. People want to simplify things. You can imagine that as a Sun newspaper headline: [Cannabis to blame].

You would say having those experiences isn’t necessarily a bad thing?

No, no, it’s not at all, it all teaches you something. It’s not just one boring long pilgrimage to money. There is something else out there. At one point a snake came from the sky and I could feel the snake and it went in a loop around my fingers and back up to the sky, and that happened. It’s like being atheist almost is anti any kind of spiritual experience. It’s like saying I made the choices I made because there’s a chemical imbalance in my brain that made me do abnormal things.

Abnormal? What’s abnormal?

Do you think that your schizophrenia diagnosis was wrong?

I don’t know. Obviously, some things happened that weren’t true. I did some things that were mad, like thinking I was finding the gardens of Babylon, or thinking paint was made out of seagull poo, or things like thinking the world isn’t round. The fact that they can predict an eclipse shows that there is. So yeah, I was a bit deluded. But it wasn’t all delusion, I think that’s important.

So you believe the earth is flat, so what? How does that make a difference to you?

I suppose people could feel threatened by it because if people start accepting the world is flat then they might also start rejecting some science that benefits society, like parents who refuse to vaccinate their kids — that’s an example.

That’s true, I didn’t think of that. But believing something, even if it’s not true, can take you in directions that you wouldn’t otherwise have gone. And some of it is true.

I think the key word is ‘delusions’, but on the positive, it’s also stepping off the beaten track and exploring. You only go into hospital for two things: one is that you’re a danger to yourself, and the other is that you’re a danger to other people. For me, it would be because I was a danger to myself. I’ve been asked about this whether I’ve been hearing thoughts and stuff from the brambles by psychiatrists.

Why do they care what I choose to believe? Why are they interested in what I choose to believe? Because it’s not what they believe. Their job is to categorise madness. It’s also about power.

It’s when social conditioning didn’t work.

The point of the exhibition is that a lot of these people are forgotten, and my paintings are there to expose them so that they’re not forgotten. To bring the issue to the forefront.

There’s one picture, the picture of the psychiatrist and me and the room, and he’s writing things. It looks pretty boring, someone writing a word that doesn’t look big in itself, but one word, that diagnosis, actually that leads to that [points to painting of himself  writing on wall in hospital] and that leads to that [points to painting of being held down by staff in hospital].

The pen is mightier than the sword.

Did you feel forgotten?

A lot of friends came to see me, and a lot of family. But I felt enclosed within the world of the hospital really. There were a lot of deluded people there as well. I felt forgotten by the people in Brighton who never came to see me I haven’t seen them in 15 years. I made all these friends…and then [he pauses]

you know, sometimes I think I’ve chosen the wrong path, but what’s done is done, I’m making it I’m coming out of it now.

Throw away the old memories and make new memories.

How was it for you, reliving all of the memories?

It was good standing back from your life from a distance instead of – you know, I kept it very secret, me talking to trees and I thought I wouldn’t be able to paint these 10 years ago because they were so close to my heart. I did have schizophrenia but it’s turned into OCD. If I did a painting of OCD that would be quite painful, but because I’m looking at the schizophrenia from a distance, it’s helped me come to terms with things.

Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

Just that I don’t think it was a bad thing, what I did.

For more information on the exhibition please click here.

Share this page

Search by typing: