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Chadwick, Helen Clarefree

  • Stephen Bury

Helen Clare Chadwick (1953–1996)

by Liz Rideal, 1985

© Liz Rideal

Chadwick, Helen Clare (1953–1996), artist, was born prematurely on 18 May 1953 at St Helier Hospital, Carshalton, Surrey, the only daughter and elder child of William Clare Chadwick, estate agent, and his Greek wife, Angeline, née Bardopoulou, of 4 Richmond Court, Richmond Road, Wimbledon, Surrey: the mother, with her daughter, featured in Chadwick's double portrait Lofos nymphon (1991). Her younger brother, David, became a South Downs shepherd and appeared in her 1987 installation, Three Houses, at the Hayward Gallery, London. The family soon moved to 23 St Arvans Close, Chepstow Rise, East Croydon; the nearby Littleheath Woods later provided the source for her Common Ground project, The Fox (1987). Her childhood and adolescence were used in Ego geometria sum (Riverside Studios, London, 1983): images of her body were photographically mapped onto a plywood incubator, pram, wigwam, and vaulting-horse.

Chadwick attended Croydon high school from 1964 to 1971, studying geography, geology, and art, and was intending to pursue an academic career as an archaeologist. Instead, she followed a foundation course in art at Bristol Polytechnic, from 1971 to 1972. She returned to Croydon for a year and studied at Croydon College of Art, where she became involved in the activities of Fluxus and the Fluxshoe tour: she made self-portraits in jelly and chocolate, and co-authored Door to Door (1973) with David Mayor for the Beau Geste Press. In September 1973 she started to study for a fine art/sculpture diploma in art and design at Brighton Polytechnic, where she was taught by Gwyther Irwin, Richard Wentworth, Alison Wilding, and Derek Boshier. She graduated BA in July 1976 with first-class honours and a commendation in art history: her final exhibition was entitled ‘Domestic sanitation’, and was influenced by such feminist artists as Penny Slinger and Judy Clark. From September 1976 to September 1977 she worked for the degree of MA in fine art/painting at Chelsea School of Art under Ian Stephenson and Ron Bowen. She also encountered the punk scene of the King's Road, Chelsea. Her final show/performance was entitled In the Kitchen, which was again shown at Art Net, London. In February 1977 she moved into 45 Beck Road, Bethnal Green, an East End street of Acme housing for artists, where she lived and worked for the rest of her life. Three sociological works followed: Train of Thought (1978–9) explored tube travel, Model Institution (1981–4) portrayed dole claimants, and a controversial art and industry residency with John Smith's Breweries culminated in the exhibition ‘Fine art/fine ale’ (Sheffield, 1982). Part-time visiting teaching at Cardiff, Sheffield, Brighton, Portsmouth, and later Chelsea and the Royal College of Art, provided some financial support, while involvement with the London Film Co-op (from 1977) led to her involvement in the selection for the ‘Hayward Annual’ (1979).

It was Ego geometria sum (touring 1983–5), which mixed autobiography with feminism, photography with sculpture, that first achieved national recognition for Chadwick and which led to the first purchase by the Arts Council. It also signalled what was to become a preoccupation with the body and identity. Blue photocopies of her body and dead animals surrounding large golden spheres in a faux rococo setting formed the basis for the Oval Court installation in the ‘Of mutability’ exhibition (Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, and touring 1986–7), which re-addressed the traditional genres of the self-portrait, nude, and vanitas. Another piece, Carcass, consisting of a column filled with household waste, which started to smell and then fractured, illustrated an increasing interest in unconventional materials. The exhibition was a critical success, leading to a purchase by the Victoria and Albert Museum, and to her short-listing—the first woman so honoured—for the 1987 Turner prize. An installation deploying a helium neon laser, Blood Hyphen (1988), in the Clerkenwell and Islington Medical Mission for Edge '88, became the basis for the exploration of cell structures using computers and microscopes in Viral Landscapes (1989–90).

Chadwick's major exhibition, ‘Effluvia’, at the Serpentine Gallery, London (also touring to Barcelona and Essen), opened in July 1994 and proved controversial but immensely popular, breaking the gallery's attendance record: it included a suggestive fountain of molten chocolate, Cacao, cibachrome photographs of flowers in Swarfega, Windolene, and Germolene, and Piss Flowers, twelve white-lacquered bronzes of casts made by herself and her partner, David Notarius, an American marine engineer whom she had met at the 1990 Fotofest in Houston, Texas, urinating in the snow during a residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts, Alberta, in March 1991. She then undertook a heavy programme of exhibitions and installations around the world, which ranged from the Aperto at the Venice Biennale (1984) to her representation of Great Britain at the São Paulo Bienal (1994) and her solo show at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1995). She was also increasingly involved with the mass media—producing a film on the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo for the BBC Artist's Journeys series in 1992, a billboard project for the BBC in 1992 (on sites in Birmingham, Bristol, Derry, Glasgow, London, and Newcastle), an AIDS awareness insert for Face magazine in August 1994, and material for inclusion in the CD-ROM Eve: the Music and Art Adventure (1996) made by the musician Peter Gabriel.

Chadwick was well known on the London and international art scene for her Cleopatra hairstyle, bright red lipstick, rings on every finger, and dapper dress-sense, as well as for her vivacity, commitment, and enthusiasm for art and teaching. She had no commercial gallery until late on in her career, when she was represented by Maureen Paley of Interim Art, London, and the Friedman-Guinness Galerie, Frankfurt. Still working on a project with the assisted conception unit at King's College Hospital, London, which she had called Stilled Lives, and unknowingly suffering from myocarditis, she died suddenly of a heart attack at a private view at the Architect's Association on 15 March 1996. Her funeral took place at Randall's Park crematorium, Leatherhead, Surrey, on 23 March 1996. A memorial service was held at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, on 21 September 1996.


  • M. Warner, L. Buck, and D. A. Mellor, Stilled lives: Helen Chadwick (1996)
  • H. Chadwick, Enfleshings (1989)
  • A. Beckett, ‘What a swell party it was’, Independent on Sunday (2 June 1996)
  • M. Haworth-Booth, interview, Aug 1994, BL NSA, Oral History of British Photography
  • H. Chadwick, Effluvia (1994) [exhibition catalogue, Essen, Barcelona, and London, 6 March – 29 Aug 1994]
  • ‘A tribute to Helen Chadwick’, BBC 2 film, 3 June 1996
  • The Guardian (18 March 1996)
  • The Independent (18 March 1996)
  • The Independent (22 March 1996)
  • The Times (19 March 1996)
  • Chelsea College of Art and Design Archive, London
  • b. cert.



  • BFINA, ‘A tribute to Helen Chadwick’, BBC2, 3 June 1996


  • Audio Arts, London
  • BL NSA, Oral history of British photography, 1994, C 459/53/1–4
  • BL NSA, ‘A tribute to Helen Chadwick’, BBC, 3 June 1996, V3728/2
  • BL NSA, performance recordings


  • Deblonde, bromide fibre print, 1965, NPG
  • L. Rideal, C-type colour print, 1983, NPG [see illus.]
  • H. Chadwick, self-portrait, cibachrome print, 1986 (Vanitas II), NPG
  • K. Brimacombe, photograph, 1994, repro. in The Independent (18 March 1996)
  • H. Chadwick, self-portrait, cibachrome photograph (Vanity), repro. in Chadwick, Enfleshings
  • K. Matthews, photograph, repro. in Warner, Buck, and Mellor, Stilled lives
  • photograph, repro. in The Times

Wealth at Death

£492,044: administration, 20 April 1998, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

British Library, National Sound Archive