Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Creativity in Unlikely Places: The Softer Side of Britain's Most Violent Prisoner

This is Charles Bronson.

Not the actor of Death Wish fame; this Charles Bronson is a British convict who has spent 40 of his 61 years in prison, 36 of those in solitary confinement. Branded Britain's Most Violent Prisoner, Bronson is perhaps best known for his dedication to physical fitness and his over-the-top escape attempts, which border on the absurd. For context, here's a bit of the man's history:

  • Born Michael Peterson, he was first arrested in 1974, aged 22, for robbing a post office. He made off with just over twenty-six pounds, and was sentenced to seven years. The sentenced would be lengthened after several escape attempts.
  • After a 1982 transfer to Broadmoor Asylum for the criminally insane, Bronson was declared legally 'sane,' although this followed on the heels of very expensive rampages, including one in which he escaped to the roof and demanded bare-knuckle fights from other inmates.
  • In 1988 he spent 69 days as a free man before being once again arrested for robbery.
  • In 1993 he took a prison librarian hostage, demanding an inflatable doll, a helicopter and a cup of tea in exchange for the man's release.
  • In 1996 he took three inmates hostages, including two Iraqi hijackers, demanded that they call him 'The General' and that they tickle his feet. For their release he asked for two Uzi sub-machine guns with 5,000 rounds of ammunition, a plane to take him to Libya, and an axe.
  • In 1999 Bronson took prison art teacher Phil Danielson hostage, then went on a 44 hour rampage in which he destroyed several refrigeration units and pieces of furniture.
And those are just the greatest hits. His life story was told in greater detail in the 2008 film Bronson, starring Tom Hardy.

Tom Hardy as Charles Bronson, 2008
Even now, at age 61, he's still creating havoc for his jailers. He was moved to HMP Woodhill in December of last year, and was bounced to a different prison, HMP Wakefield, after only four months for allegedly assaulting a prison governor. Charles Bronson is indeed stranger than fiction, and you might wonder why I would write about this man. What creative contributions could be made by a man who is essentially a real-life comic book villain? Well, here's where the story gets even stranger: He paints. And the pieces are auctioned off. For charity. Yeah.

Mr. Philanthropist
Bronson proved he was no stranger to making do with scarce resources in his 2007 personal fitness manifesto Solitary Fitness, which features the prisoner's own workout regimen using nothing but his own body. But now he has shown that he can re-appropriate the harsh, and sterile landscapes of Britain's prison system to create beautiful and often satyrical art. Here are a few pieces:

There's nothing quite like art about making art.
So why is this creative? Or rather, why does this merit more attention than other artists, say, artists who aren't serving out life sentences for violent crimes they committed while already in prison? I'd like to here argue that what is perhaps the most creative aspect of Charles Bronson's art is that it comes from an environment that is quite hostile to creativity (again, this man took an art teacher hostage). While not all of his pieces are concerned with prisons and asylums--he's also done many portraits of mice, birds and flowers--some of his most moving art regards his own plight in the British prison system and his struggle to find himself through his art. As his website  boasts, he is a 'born again artist' who has 'traded my sawn-off for a brush.' Whether or not his art has changed him as a person, it gives an interesting look into a deeply troubled mind. 

To see more of the artist's work, visit
To help in his appeal for release (at your own risk, I'm not advocating this), visit 

Other References: 


  1. I think that I have a hard time agreeing that the environment that Charles Bronson is in is necessarily harsh to creativity, especially considering that much of his art is about that environment. If he were somewhere else (aka not jail), he would at the very least lose much of his current subject matter, if not cease to paint at all. We've talked about motivation for creativity a lot in class, and it seems to me that his creativity is likely motivated by the fact that he is in solitary confinement and therefore has no other outlet for emotions, or anything else for that matter. Given that his artwork is often of the environment he's in, it seems that, at least for him, the environment is not hostile to his particular brand of creativity.

  2. I understand your view that prison may not be the most conducive environment for creativity. However, I'd like to suggest that although the confines and stress of conformity may strain some potential creatives, the drastic increase in recreational time and the new perspective of prison life may provide inspiration for others. For Charles Bronson the confines of prison walls push him to create satirical pieces that capture his frustrations or emotions. Bronson seems to draw on the experiences he has had within prison and not images of freedom or escape. Suggesting he is reflecting deeply upon what he is going through, whether he is remorseful or not is another issue.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.