Ever on the lookout for a new enfant terrible, the art world's current darling would seem to be Charles Bronson, aka Britain's most dangerous prisoner. Next Friday sees the release of the film Bronson, with a beefed-up, bewhiskered Tom Hardy in the lead. The same day an exhibition of the artwork Bronson has produced over 34 years in jail will open at the Amuti bookshop and gallery in the West End of London.
Bronson was jailed in 1975 for a bungled armed robbery from which he made off with just £26.18. He has spent 30 years in solitary confinement in more than 120 institutions, after a series of incidents inside including 11 hostage-takings, fights with warders, rooftop protests and savage attacks on prisoners. He has used the hours alone in his cell at Wakefield Prison to publish 11 books, devise an exercise regime for confined spaces ("Solitary Fitness") and write poetry. He has also proved to be a prolific artist.
"There has been a shift in attitudes towards him," says Laurence Johns at Amuti. "There have been no violent acts for nine years now. Not a lot of people have experienced what he has experienced and they want to buy the art because it's interesting and it's about mental illness, not just as a bit of work by a notorious criminal." The show gathers over 50 works from private collections with prices from £300. The most expensive (around £3,000) are large-scale pieces on found pieces of cardboard. Their prices reflect their rarity – Bronson is usually limited to prison-issue A4 paper and coloured pencils.
The finely wrought sketches, shaded in pastel colours, reveal the horrors of confinement and Bronson's disturbed mental state with careful detachment. A self-portrait has the caption: "Never walk backwards into a mad man's nightmare. You never know what you will find." Another shows Bronson lying on the floor of his cage – or "Concrete Coffin" – arm poking out of the food hatch, while two wooden signs – "Insanity" and "Isolation" – swing from the bars.
Who knows; the man himself might even turn up. With criminally good timing, Bronson's parole hearing takes place next Wednesday.