Britain loves a rebellious artist. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were prosecuted on drug charges in 1967; five years later the Stones released their highest-selling album. Tracey Emin listed everyone she'd ever had sex with; now she's really rich. However, surely there's a line you don't cross – say, taking somebody hostage and demanding an inflatable doll, a helicopter and a cup of tea in return for their release?
Charles Salvador – the artist formerly known as Charles Bronson, "Britain's Most Notorious Criminal" – will be making a move into the commercial art world next month. The violent inmate's surreal sketches will be exhibited at the Zebra One gallery in Hampstead after the artworks (the ones peppered around this post) were discovered during a clear out.
Born Michael Peterson in 1952 to middle-class parents who once ran the local Conservative Party Club, Charles began engaging in petty shoplifting with friends as a teenager. After leaving school, unsatisfied with factory jobs and a brief stint at Tesco, Bronson moved into more serious crimes, like pinching cars and scrapping with rockers as a teenage mod of Ellesmere Port, Cheshire. It wasn't until 1974, however, after several arrests and court appearances, that the young Bronson would get his first taste of what would be a long-lasting relationship with Her Majesty's Prison Service.
At 22 years old he was jailed for an armed robbery of a suburban post office, in which he escaped with just £26.18. Although sentenced to seven years, Bronson could have been a free man and reunited with his wife and child in just four if he displayed good behaviour. But as prison officers across the UK were about to discover, good behaviour wasn't exactly part of his artistic vision.
Over the next four decades the man who would become Britain's most infamous prisoner would carry out a series of bizarre and savage acts towards prison staff and fellow inmates. He's taken 11 hostages – including an art teacher, a librarian and three prisoners – for a total of 44 hours. He's also climbed onto nine prison roofs, caused hundreds of thousands of pounds in damage and reportedly once smeared himself in butter and attacked 12 guards after Arsenal won the FA Cup.
Yet, in a recent statement, Bronson announced an end to his violence. Changing his name to Charles Salvador in homage to the Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dali, he claims that he is focused only on creating masterpieces from now on – that he's a changed man. Bronson is known to have been painting from his cell for a number of years, and his sketches – which often depict grotesque caricatures and strange creatures – have sold for thousands on internet auctions, with the proceeds going to children's charities and to fund a holiday for his elderly mother.
Now, he's about to be exhibited in one the UK's most affluent areas. Gabrielle du Plooy, who owns the Zebra One gallery in Hampstead, recently found some of Bronson's sketches gathering dust in a drawer while having a clear out.
"I knew there were some old canvases and sketches in the drawer, but didn't know what they were. Then I had a closer look at these and saw Charles Bronson's signature and prison number on them," Gabrielle told me.
Gabrielle's father, who ran the gallery before her, was given the sketches by a local pub landlord who displayed a range of artworks around the now closed bar.
"My dad was doing their framing for them at the time, and I'm not sure that the guy at the bar really knew what they were or what they could potentially be worth," she told me. "I knew he was a convict, but I didn't really know much about his art. I didn't realise that he sold his pieces for a great deal of money, or that any of his art had really made it into the world outside of prison.
"When I found the postcard sketches, I did some research and realised that his pieces have previously sold at auction for thousands of pounds."
Gabrielle, who estimates that the pictures could rake in £10,000 at auction, intends to donate the proceeds to mental health charities and to some of the victims of Bronson's crimes: "I wanted to seek out the families of his victims and offer some of the money made from the sale of the postcards to each of them. I think it would be a great thing to do, and a great use of the money raised from Bronson's art."
See the rest of Bronson's sketches below: