Finding beauty in the ‘unbeautiful’: in conversation with Lucy Burscough

CN: This article contains discussion about and true-to-life portraits of facial cancers.

Living with a serious illness can consume your sense of identity. Life can come to revolve around treatment, around the restrictions a condition places on your mind and your body. This can be even further complicated when your illness manifests as something on the most visible part of you, both to you and to others – your face.

Lucy Burscough is an award-winning artist whose intricate portraits capture the heart and soul of her subjects. In her latest project, Facing Out, she continues her exploration of the overlap between ‘patient’ and ‘person’, art and science, physical being and spiritual identity; her focus this time is facial disfigurement as caused by head and neck cancer.

I had the great pleasure of speaking to Lucy about her work last month. She chatted to me from the beautiful greenhouse at Maggie’s Manchester (pictured right), surrounded by plants and sunlight. The building is a short walk from the Christie’s hospital, the biggest cancer hospital in Europe; it was Lucy’s base for Facing Out, encouraging her subjects to take advantage of the brilliant team there, who offer all kinds of support both to people undergoing treatment and their loved ones.

Funded by Arts Council England, Lucy created 10 pieces which are currently united in an exhibition at The Whitworth, Manchester. Her portraits are crafted with incredible, exacting detail – she says herself she’s fascinated by the physicality of flesh – but also crucially carry across the personality of her subjects: their cheekiness, their weariness, their stubbornness and their courage. That kind of skill is incredibly rare, and gives Facing Out a profound impact, transforming it beyond a simplistic documentation of life after facial cancer.

“That whole idea of being looked at changes”

12,000 people every year are diagnosed with head and neck cancer in the UK, around 3% of all new cases of cancer; it’s the fourth most common cancer for men. The treatment is invasive, often affecting or removing the most basic of human functions – breathing, eating, swallowing, speaking, seeing, smelling. Not only can the surgery be physically life-changing, the results are often wholly visible, impossible to ‘hide away’ under clothing. As an illness, this makes it more than a little brutal both to someone’s day-to-day experiences and to their sense of self.

Much of Lucy’s recent work has taken the form of Arts for Health projects. She paints her portraits in public spaces, trying to put patients at the centre of their stories:

I set up a painting area in a hospital space, a clinical space, quite often a waiting room, so the painting kind of becomes a performance; the idea really is to engage people in conversation, to share the stories behind the artworks, but also to give people the opportunity to think about something that’s not their treatment for a period of time. The making of the work becomes a piece in itself.

It was as she was working in one such space in the Manchester Royal Eye Hospital that she was approached by a patient named Bernard, who later became her first portraiture subject in Facing Out (pictured left). “He was hilarious,” Lucy remembers. “We had this really entertaining conversation, and even though it was obvious he was going through something that was very tragic – and that was having a massive impact on his life – he was very funny.” She friended him on Facebook and followed his story through the gruelling ordeal of his treatment, which Bernard always met with good grace and good humour.

Lucy is touched by work with a social impact; to her, art is so much more powerful when its impact comes not just at the end of the project, but by engaging people in the process and having a direct impact on their lives. She was particularly moved by the Hoe Street Central Bank, a collective in London which bought up and then destroyed £1.2 million in personal debt. It’s her aspiration that her work engages social ideals to others, challenging preconceptions about beauty, identity and the self.

This is especially pertinent for Facing Out, as society is often unspeakably unkind to people who have facial disfigurements. A report by the charity Changing Faces in 2017 found that an astonishing 67% of adults attach negative characteristics to people with visible disfigurements; this can’t be helped by how frequently villainy and facial scarring are equated in popular culture. This is one of the elements Lucy most wanted to explore with her portraiture in this exhibition:

I look at people a lot, as a portrait artist. I look at them with great scrutiny, and I’ve always been interested in the medical gaze, how doctors look at people’s faces, in looking as a diagnostic tool. But I think there’s something particularly interesting that happens when somebody’s had a facial disfigurement, because their experience of being looked at radically alters. When they are drawing people’s attention because they’ve got an unusual-looking face, and they feel like they have to hide their face – there’s a lack of social anonymity that we all take for granted and that can be totally lost, particularly when someone’s got quite a severe disfigurement.

That whole idea of being looked at changes. I think there’s something very interesting that happens when somebody who has been looked at, and has a problematic relationship with being looked at, becomes a portraiture subject; it’s kind of like reclaiming the experience, it’s welcoming people to look, it’s saying ‘come and spend time looking at my face.’

This is why in all of Lucy’s portraits the subject stares directly out at the viewer; they maintain their power, ensuring that they’re confronting the viewer rather than being a passive subject of their scrutiny. The result is certainly striking and – hopefully – very empowering.

“It’s brought them together as a little gang”

Once she’d settled on her subject, Maggie’s quickly became Lucy’s base for Facing Out. Although for her previous projects she’d often painted in clinical spaces, she soon realised that this might prove distressing in a busy clinical setting where the people around her could be coping with the shock of an initial diagnosis. Maggie’s was a warm and friendly environment, with staff and resources specifically aimed to help people navigate through their illness; a much more appropriate and comfortable place.

Before she paints their portrait, Lucy gets to know each of her subjects individually. She was keen from the outset to ensure that the project didn’t become exploitative, that it didn’t shift to her playing the role of ‘saviour’; her subjects needed to feel that they were at the centre of the artwork, that it was their story told on their terms. She gave them control over what appeared in the background of their portrait, so that they had the opportunity to present their wider identity beyond ‘cancer patient’, a label which they’ve been unwillingly given. “It gives people an opportunity to think about who they are and what’s important to them,” Lucy explains. “This being illustrated in the projects was really beneficial, and could be helpful for people whose sense of self might have become a little shaky.”

Most of the portraits are snapshots, capturing one moment in each patient’s recovery. There are two exceptions; the first is her portrait of a surgeon, and the second is Graeme, who she painted five times through the course of his reconstructive surgery (shown right and below). Graeme’s recovery was sadly not as smooth as they’d hoped when Lucy first began painting his portrait, and the result is a series of paintings which are as harrowing as they are beautiful. There’s a particular power and honesty to this group which I find incredibly important; it seems vital to acknowledge through them that not only is a cancer an awful disease, it’s an ongoing one. As Lucy puts it:

It was really important to acknowledge that although I try to make beautiful paintings of people which are powerful and inspiring and hopeful images, cancer is a horrible disease and it does have a horrible impact on people’s lives. I think to be brutally honest about that is really important, and I think particularly when you’re working at Maggie’s, where people are coming in and you might not see the disfigurement that they have. It might be hidden underneath clothing, but they still have that experience and that sense of loss. I think those paintings are my favourite, because they taught me so much.

Graeme’s experience also highlighted for her the true practicalities of reconstructive surgery alongside the aesthetic ones. For him and his surgeon, his priorities shifted from appearance to functionality, to reaching a state where he was able to breathe properly and where he could ride his bike and wear glasses again. This binary pressing need for practical comfort and visual appearance was a thread throughout all of the people Lucy interacted with. She thinks the female patients might have been particularly affected by their changing appearance, although she also suggests it might just be that the women felt more able to open up about it while the men often felt obliged to put on a brave face.

This is where a second aspect of Facing Out, the ongoing interactive workshops, really came to the fore. Lucy’s initial training was in sculpture, and she drew on this experience to help create craft projects for patients at Maggie’s to complete, together with a music therapist and horticulturist. These sessions not only created a sense of community between patients, it also gave them an environment which helped them open up and discuss their experiences.

“Just sitting around the table together and doing something allows some really interesting and quite difficult conversations to happen,” Lucy says. “I think it’s because of having something else to be doing – people often find it hard to look each other in the eye. With this, they can step out of the conversation if it’s becoming too difficult and come back into it because they’re doing something with their hands.”

One patient had become agoraphobic because of the extent of her facial scarring; joining the workshops and art groups at the hospital helped her to regain her confidence and begin getting out and about again. “They’ve had a shared experience with people who’ve had a similar experience to them,” she adds. “It’s brought them together as a little gang. I hope that’s something that they’ve taken away, not feeling as isolated as perhaps they might have done otherwise.”

I was drawn to Facing Out because of Lucy’s striking portraiture, her profound skill as an artist; but I find it especially important and moving that art itself has created a vehicle for community and recovery in such incredibly difficult circumstances. It’s certainly shown to me the huge promise of projects like Lucy’s in ways I wouldn’t ever have imagined.

“I don’t think any of the portraits inspire pity”

I asked Lucy why she thinks portraiture as a medium, and her work in particular, has a unique ability to capture both someone’s physical appearance and something of their spirit as well. “It’s a tricky one!” she admits, and then raises a great point I hadn’t thought of:

I think it’s because we have such an understanding of portraiture throughout history, and to become the subject of a portrait adds a sense of nobility. With the way that I work I’m not asking people to commission a piece, it’s offering people the opportunity to have a portrait painted who wouldn’t consider it – they’re average folk who wouldn’t have a portrait hanging in a mayoral office or anything. They’re people whose experiences are interesting and who really appreciate the experience of being painted because it’s something they never expected.

The way that the portraits are displayed in the Whitworth also adds to this profoundly. As part of Lucy’s intention to place the subjects at the heart of the project, they were each invited to choose a few artworks from the Whitworth’s collection to tell their stories and give an impression of who they are. “It’s a gift not only to them but also their friends and family,” Lucy says. “When we had the launch party and their friends and their family turned up, they were all celebrating having their loved ones’ portraits on our gallery wall. And particularly some of the paintings that were chosen to hang alongside – Degas and Van Gogh and various other luminaries next to their artwork. It’s a really beautiful thing.” The exhibition is also accompanied by a series of audio recordings by the subjects, talking about what they chose and why. This aspect, the explicit inclusion of her subjects’ voices, is something of which Lucy is especially proud.

This exploration of identity is central to Lucy’s work and has been such a key aspect to Facing Out in particular. It invites consideration of how society’s traditional concepts of beauty and the self transfer to a more clinical setting – and whether it’s even fair to make such a distinction. Lucy found that when people approached her while she was painting these portraits, they were often full of compliments for her subjects: “hasn’t she got beautiful skin?”, “isn’t her hair beautiful?”, “you can see that he looks kind”. Lucy adds:

I treasure those, and I can pass those on to the subject. People are very critical of themselves, but it’s those things, looking kind – I don’t think any of the portraits inspire pity. The situations that they’re in are very difficult, but it’s very rarely that people who are watching me paint talk to me about them in a way that’s pitying. There’s more to it than that, and I hope that the portraits draw out that humanity and empathy and the beauty of the people, the inner beauty. That sounds a bit trite – but it’s the essence of people’s personality that the portraits captured.

Lucy’s work has, in her own words, been interested in “finding the beauty in what might be considered an unbeautiful image” for quite some time. Facing Out seems to have provided a perfect opportunity for this, challenging conventional ideals and exploring this ‘inner beauty’ in an incredibly moving way.

To me her work also encourages conversation around the unnecessary barriers constructed between art and science, finding the humanity at the centre of both. “I’d like to think it works both ways,” Lucy agrees. “There’s a shared thing that’s happening with art and science – it’s about being interested, and it’s about exploring the human experience as human beings on the planet that we’re on and the universe that we’re in. It’s that interest in the world that’s the starting point for both activities. I don’t think they’re too far apart, and it’s nice when they come a bit closer.” Sometimes she has to search a little to find a scientific partner, but the right fit produces both powerful art and therapeutic benefit for patients and practitioners alike.


I finish by asking Lucy what she’s planning to work on next. She hopes to reunite with the surgeon she painted for Facing Out (shown above), using her art to help make his practice of microsurgery more accessible and less daunting to patients. For this she wants to return to her roots a little (to my delight, she spent several years working as a model-maker for Postman Pat) and incorporate sculpting, model-making, pattern-printing and sewing alongside painting. It sounds like a fascinating project, and I really hope she gets the funding and support she needs to make it come together.

With the exhibition still ongoing, Lucy’s just beginning to evaluate her work and the effect it’s had on both subjects and viewers; I can’t wait to hear the results. For now, you can see all of Lucy’s portraits for Facing Out on display at The Whitworth in Manchester until 2 June.

There’s more information available about Lucy and her work on her website. She’s also on Twitter and Facebook.

First inset image via Twitter. It shows a bright sunny room with large windows, with a table and shelves covered with plants. All other images reproduced with the kind permission of the artist. Feature image shows Lucy working on a portrait of a smiling woman. The second inset image shows a painting of a smiling man, Bernard, wearing an eyepatch which has “The Moods” written on it. The text in the background reads “I wandered lonely as a doley that drowns in debt and unpaid bills, when at once I saw my leaders, a host of rotten infidels”. Third and fourth inset images are portraits of the same man, Graeme, wearing a black shirt against a black background. In the first the tumour spreads across his face, covering one eye, and he has a small smile. In the second the centre of his face has been profoundly damaged and his expression is sombre. Fifth inset is a portrait of a man, Damir, wearing surgical scrubs.