If luck can play as big a part as deliberate re-assessment in burnishing an artist’s reputation, the case of Audrey Amiss is instructive. And for her, the stars aligned not once but twice.


Born into a working class family in Sunderland in 1933, Amiss made it to the hallowed halls of London’s Royal Academy in 1954 but was beset by mental illness and never graduated. Writing to the head of school, her psychiatrist at the time mused that perhaps her lack of looks were a contributing factor. Amiss died in 2013, a semi-recluse who had found sporadic work as a typist in between breakdowns and enforced stays in psychiatric hospitals where she was drugged with anti-psychotics.


She never stopped drawing or making art, though, to the extent that her surviving relatives inherited boxes of the stuff. It was destined for a skip until lucky break number one – a school gate conversation between Amiss’s niece and a fellow mum who worked for science charity the Wellcome Foundation and was alert enough to recognise a potential treasure trove.


Lucky break number two comes in the shape of film-maker Carol Morley, who in 2015 was awarded a Wellcome Screenwriting Fellowship and given free access to Foundation archives which by then contained Amiss’s work.


“I was looking at all sorts of areas but there was something in me that wanted a first person account of a life,” Morley explains. “I was asking around and somebody mentioned that they had somewhere the wrappers of everything a woman ate every day. She collected them. And I said: ‘I want to see that.’ It turned out to be Audrey.”


By then only a fraction of the boxes had even been opened and little had been catalogued, so Morley’s eyes were the first on them. There were drawings, notebooks and, yes, diaries in which Amiss would detail what she had eaten and affix examples of the packaging.


Then, in a box containing items which had simply been swept off Amiss’s desk, Morley found among the biscuit crumbs and “weird ornaments” a passport in which the place for the holder’s stated profession had been embelished somewhat. It now read: Typist Artist Pirate King. Morley had the subject for her film – and boy did she have a great title.


Fast forward to 2013 and, a decade after Amiss’s death, the film finally receives a theatrical release. Monica Dolan, who featured alongside Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams in Morley’s award-winning 2014 drama The Falling, stars as an aged Audrey. Alongside Dolan in a quite stellar cast are Kelly Macdonald as Sandra, the put-upon Scottish care worker assigned to look after her, and Gina McKee, as her estranged sister Dorothy.


Sandra is the fictional lynchpin who reluctantly agrees to drive Audrey from London to Sunderland where (another invention of Morley’s) she is determined to enter her art in an open competition she has seen advertised.


Taking off in Sandra’s electric car Sunshine, this odd couple travel the length of the country having encounter after strange encounter, each one intercut with examples of Amiss’s work. It’s essentially a road movie, though put Thelma And Louise out of your mind. Instead think of David Lynch’s The Straight Story (also featuring estranged siblings) or Alice In The Cities, German director Wim Wenders’s black and white dry run for the colour-soaked film he would make a decade later – Paris, Texas.


For Stockport-born Morley, also a working class northener catapulted by talent into a prestigious, London-based ‘academy’ (in her case Central Saint Martins), it’s not hard to see the attraction of Audrey Amiss as a subject.  “There is something where if you come from the north to London you feel you don’t quite fit in,” she admits. “For a long time I’ve had a real fear of picking up the wrong cutlery when I’m with posh people.”


But the sense of “kinship” she feels with Amiss stretches beyond geography. “I feel she gave a voice to everyday experience in her diaries so her frustrations with daily life became mine. I could connect with it. Even her frustration that she wasn’t accepted as an artist.”


In one diary entry Amiss recounts how her septuagenarian mother Belle (“four foot eleven and with a limp,” says Morley) pitched up at London’s Cork Street, home to the city’s more rarefied and expensive selling galleries. She was clutching examples of her daughter’s work, intent on persuading these tastemakers to take her on as a client. “They sort of laughed her out of the gallery,” says Morley.


But another point of contact between two women is the reason Morley was at the Wellcome Foundation in the first place – her long-standing interest in mental health. She explores it in 2011’s Dreams Of A Life, a drama documentary about young Londoner Joyce Carol Vincent, whose dead body lay undiscovered in her flat for three years. In The Falling she views it through the prism of a fainting epidemic which afflicts a girls’ boarding school in the late 1960s. And in 2018’s Out Of Blue, adapted from Martin Amis’s novel Night Train, the themes are memories of abuse and childhood trauma.


“I’ve always been interested,” she says. “I’ve grown up among so many people [with mental health problems]. My father killed himself [Morley was 11 at the time]. My grandma was in an asylum. Mental health difficulties have touched me and a lot of people I know. So for me it is deeply fascinating because some of it, especially psychosis and the extreme forms of mental ill health, touch upon what our ideas of reality are.”


A big subject, but Morley more than does it justice. Her take on the life of Audrey Amiss – an outsider artist to the core, despite her initial training – presents just such an alternative idea of reality and provides an affecting introduction to the world and the work of a unique talent.


Typist Artist Pirate King is in cinemas now