Ivor Gurney: how the composer’s life was plagued by mental illness

How Ivor Gurney’s mental decline led to him being committed for insanity

What happened to Ivor Gurney?

By mid-September 1922, Ronald Gurney could face it no more. Just two months earlier, he had married and moved into a new home in Gloucester, hoping to put his experiences as a soldier in World War I behind him. Instead, Ronald’s brother, the composer and poet Ivor Gurney, turned up unexpectedly on the doorstep, announcing his intention to stay with the newlyweds.

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Gurney’s time as a soldier in the First World War

Gurney was a First World War soldier, seeing action at Ypres, the Somme and Passchendaele. Wounded and gassed in 1917, Ivor was eventually invalided out of front-line action. But when the war was over, what we now call ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’ began wreaking havoc on his personal life.

Why and when was Gurney first placed in an asylum?

At his brother’s home, Ivor Gurney threw fits of rage, claimed ‘electrical tricks’ were being played on his brain and threatened suicide. Unable to cope, Ronald arranged for Ivor to enter a convalescent home near Bristol, in the hope he might recover. That didn’t happen. Days later, on 22 September 1922, Gurney was transferred to Barnwood House, an asylum in Gloucester. There, he was certified insane, though modern medicine points to manic depression as another possible diagnosis. He was 32 years old.

What caused Gurney’s calamitous mental collapse?

Why had his hugely promising career as a creative artist – three song cycles and two collections of his poetry had already been published – so catastrophically imploded? Gurney’s war experiences were possibly a factor. ‘Nervous breakdown from deferred shell-shock’ was the army’s official verdict, and there is no doubt that Gurney, like many soldiers, saw horrors on the field of battle which were impossible to unsee later.

But there is more to what one biographer has called ‘the ordeal of Ivor Gurney’ than that. In truth, his mental instability had caused concern well before he joined the army. As a schoolboy at King’s School, Gloucester, he often seemed to ‘live in a world of his own’, and was unkindly labelled ‘Batty Gurney’. He dressed shambolically, slept rough, had fits of binge-eating and generally ‘did not seem to belong’ to his family.

While a student at the Royal College of Music, he suffered serious bouts of depression, exacerbated by the bustle of London life and its sharp contrast with peaceful rural Gloucestershire. Gurney himself said he was suffering from ‘neurasthenia’, which he associated with having to ‘drive himself’, ‘feeling nervy’ and being over-wrought emotionally. Military service in many ways helped with this, he felt – the comradeship with fellow soldiers and the sense of belonging were things that did not come easily to him in civilian life.

What happened to Gurney?

Throughout his travails, Gurney was constantly writing either poems or music, often in wild outbursts of creativity. He wrote over 300 songs in total, and the best of them – the Five Elizabethan Songs and the cycle Ludlow and Teme, in particular – rank with the finest in the English-speaking tradition. But his demons were implacable.

In December, he was moved to the City of London Mental Hospital at Dartford and remained there till he died of tuberculosis, aged 47, on 26 December 1937. While in hospital, Gurney heard ‘many kinds of voices’, wrote rambling letters and professed himself the author of works by Shakespeare, Beethoven and Haydn.

Gradually, he lost the ability to compose music himself. ‘His sufferings, mental and physical, were to prove beyond healing,’ a Gloucestershire newspaper wrote in its obituary. ‘The sensitive mind was so far from being able to distinguish between reality and illusion that retreat from the world became necessary.

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Top image credit: Gloucester County Council