John Devlin was only 25 years old when he left Canada to study theology at Cambridge and set himself on the path to priesthood. Although he adored Cambridge, he had to return and abandon his ecclesiastical dreams because of a psychotic disorder. He thus devoted his life to drawing his own Nova Cantabrigiensis, an idealized Cambridge that became both a symbolic projection and a healing protocol. Once his great work - developed in secret - was discovered in the late 1980s, he was the subject of numerous exhibitions and publications including the Rencontres de la Photographie d’Arles for the iconic exhibition Photo Brut.
John Devlin was born in 1954 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At the age of 25, he left to read theology at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge. There he suffered a severe breakdown, the first of a series of psychotic episodes that forced him to return to his hometown to be hospitalized. Over the course of a long convalescence, he was obsessed by the idea of reproducing the very essence of Cambridge, which he considered an ideal town.
He spent decades after that making hundreds of drawings, studies and maps of an imaginary, utopian town that he named Nova Cantabrigiensis, New Cambridge, located on an island in Nova Scotia’s Minas Basin.
His sketches recreate the buildings and ornamental gardens of the medieval town where he had planned to become a priest. All of them are coded with symbols and formulae that only he understands. “My theory,” he says, “is that for ideal design, there is an Ideal Ratio. I have been hunting for such a constant. I was on a Faustian quest, for arcane knowledge that would explain the magical ambience of Cambridge. I thought that if I could capture that ambience as a mathematical formula, then I wouldn’t have to go to England. I thought I could think my way out of mental illness back into the happy times in Cambridge … before things began to fall apart on me.” One of Devlin’s main obsessions is the ratio of 3:7, the relationship between the number of vowels and consonants in “Jesu Christ”; he has even marked his toenails with it. He is convinced that all objects that are not constituted according to this perfect ratio are flawed, and by correcting them, he will be able to prevent illness and death.
After a lengthy, reclusive stay at his family home, in 1989 Devlin moved into a group home in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, where he continues to live.
Preface : Raphaël Koenig
Foreword : Christian Berst
Catalog published to mark the exhibition In abstracto, from June 8th to July 15th, 2017.