(Blogpost) John Bellany’s ‘Self Portrait with Juliet’

John Bellany, ‘Self Portrait with Juliet’, 1979, Oil on canvas, 165 x 106.7cm, © the artist’s estate / Bridgeman Images

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week, so we want to shine a spotlight on a particularly special piece in Swindon’s art collection, which speaks about creativity and mental wellbeing. ‘Self Portrait with Juliet’ (1979) is an emotional painting by John Bellany, who is known for his expressive and confrontational artworks. It’s infused with sorrow and anxiety, but it also shows the touching and supportive relationship Bellany shared with his wife Juliet.

It was painted at a particularly challenging time, for Juliet suffered from manic depression and had spent several periods very ill in hospital. Her sad face is partly obscured by her hair, her thin shoulders are hunched, and she leans heavily on Bellany. He grips his paint palette, a symbol of his trade which supported them emotionally and financially. The two of them seem to be hemmed in by their surroundings, which includes canvases behind and in front of them, and a boat in the foreground.

In many of Bellany’s paintings from this time, boats are symbolic of the voyage of life. The name inscribed on the side of the boat is MIZPAH, the Hebrew word for watchtower from the Old Testament, which goes with the text ‘The Lord watch between me and thee when we are absent from one another’. This was also engraved on Juliet’s engagement ring and the separation implied refers to her time in hospital. The sail of the ship reads, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night…Rage, range against the dying of the light’. This heartfelt quote from Dylan Thomas seems to be Bellany’s plea to Juliet not to succumb to her illness.

‘Self Portrait with Juliet’ is a poignant portrait, which demonstrates the power of creativity to communicate difficult emotions, and to transform experience into meaningful visual imagery. A year has passed since this blog-post was first published in May 2020, and we still find ourselves affected by a global pandemic that has changed our lives and challenged our sense of wellbeing. Here at Art on Tour we continue to use Swindon’s art collection to connect to communities both digitally and in person, in the hope of advocating the power of art and creativity.

Blogpost by Katie (Engagement Officer, Art on Tour)

One thought on “(Blogpost) John Bellany’s ‘Self Portrait with Juliet’

  1. This is a particularly enlightening introduction to Bellany’s expressive painting and I love his simple use of bright colour, whatever the mood, in this case poignant and supportive. it’s good to see it again, thank you Katie.


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