Obituary: Dr Charles Rycroft

CHARLES RYCROFT was one of British psychoanalysis's most lucid exponents and one of its severest critics. He produced several highly influential books including A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, which has been continuously in print since it appeared in 1968, and The Innocence of Dreams (also 1968), which he considered to be his finest work.

Rycroft was essentially an essayist, whose clarity of thought and felicity of expression set him apart from most of his psychoanalytic contemporaries. He was suspicious of intellectual system-building, yet the guiding principles which informed his work anticipated and influenced many of today's developments in psychoanalytic psychotherapy. Rejecting psychological determinism, and Freud's notion of the "mental apparatus", he recast psychoanalytic ideas in linguistic terms.

For him the essence of psychotherapy was the search for meaning - but one informed by biology. He resisted the idea of the analyst as a detached observer, and emphasised the relationship between therapist and patient as the crucial curative element. He saw creativity and the use of symbolism as universal and healthy aspects of the mind, not as manifestations of neurosis. Opposed to the hermeticism of psychoanalysis, his thinking was informed by a wide knowledge of history, literature, and contemporary science - he valued Coleridge, Darwin and Gregory Bateson alongside Freud, W.D. Fairbairn and Donald Winnicott.

Rycroft was born in 1914 into what he liked to describe as the "lower upper classes". His father was a fox-hunting baronet, who died when Charles was 11, leaving his mother depressed and relatively impoverished. The young Rycroft was sent to Wellington, where he joined a group of "type B Wellingtonians", which included the poet Gavin Ewart, a lifelong friend.

Although destined for an army career, he went instead to Cambridge where his intellectual gifts and left-wing sympathies were soon apparent. He briefly joined the Communist Party, and, influenced by Virginia Woolf's brother Adrian Stephen, became interested in what was at that time the subversive discipline of psychoanalysis.

After a year as a history research student, he applied for analytic training but, by his own account, was considered by Ernest Jones, the doyen of the British Psychoanalytic Society, to be a dilettante, and so was asked to qualify in medicine first. His medical training was at University College Hospital in London, and later he worked briefly in psychiatry at the Maudsley Hospital, before setting up in private practice as an analyst in 1948, continuing to see patients until a few days before his death.

His first analyst was Ella Sharpe, who may have stimulated his interested in metaphor. After her premature death he was treated by Sylvia Payne (he used to joke about the "sharps" and "pains" of analytic training), and rose quickly in the British Psychoanalytic Society, becoming assistant editor of the International Journal of Psychoanalysis and Scientific Secretary (1956-61) and a training analyst, with R.D. Laing perhaps his best-known analysand.

Towards the end of the 1950s, however, he became dismayed by the rivalry between the Kleinian and Freudian factions, and began to question the scientific credentials of psychoanalysis. He quietly withdrew from the Psychoanalytic Society, devoting instead his considerable literary talents to a wider audience. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s he reviewed prolifically for the Observer, New Society, New York Review of Books and the New Statesman, evaluating the major figures in contemporary psychoanalysis and psychology.

As an analyst he was supportive and empathic, with a humorous acceptance of human failings and foibles. He instilled hope, and his existential sympathies meant that he never imposed his will, letting people make their own choices. At the same time he had an uncanny nose for any traces of intellectual and social pretention, self-deception or snobbery.

He enjoyed clubland, but was fundamentally a private and shy man, who valued solitude alongside his intense but well-ordered friendships. Just as he remained in touch with the biological roots of psychology, he was, without subscribing to formal religion, also aware of the aspirational aspects of the mind. Writing of the "God I want" he claimed continuity, wholeness and honesty as his deities.

A final evaluation of Rycroft's work and its influence has yet to be made, but it is likely that he will be seen as a prescient figure in the history of psychoanalysis. His role as an anti-establishment insider gave him an unique perspective on the psychoanalytic movement. His inimitable voice - ironic, self-deprecatory, yet quietly authoritative - will long outlive him.

Jeremy Holmes

Charles Frederick Rycroft, psychoanalyst: born Dummer, Hampshire 9 September 1914; Consultant Psychotherapist, Tavistock Clinic 1956-68; Foundation Fellow, Royal College of Psychiatrists 1973; married 1947 Chloe Majolier (one son, two daughters; marriage dissolved 1963), 1978 Jenny Pearson; died London 24 May 1998.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform Engineer - VMware / SAN / Tier3 DC

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform En...

Recruitment Genius: Purchasing Assistant

£10000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger Assistant

£17000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Ashdown Group: Automated Tester / Test Analyst - .Net / SQL - Cheshire

£32000 per annum + pension, healthcare & 23 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A gro...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot