Tags: Artist in Focus, Bethlem Art Collection, Charles Sims
Charles Sims was born in Islington, where his father owned a factory, but grew up in Margate where the family moved soon after his birth. Throughout his life he was lame from a serious injury to his leg which he received in infancy. After various attempts to train him for a career in business he was allowed to attend art schools in London and Paris, and later the Royal Academy Schools – from which he was expelled on the pretext of a trivial misdemeanour (in reality, probably for his cheerful non-conformity). His reputation as a painter was established with his first one-man show at the Leicester Galleries in 1906. He became best known for lyrical open-air scenes, full of light and exuberance, which he painted during an idyllic period of his life with his wife and young children in Sussex. He was constantly experimenting, and revived, or reinvented, the technique of painting with tempera in order to preserve the brilliance of the colours.
The idyll ended with the outbreak of war. His eldest son was killed, and the family moved to London. In 1917 he completed a series of paintings, The Seven Sacraments of Holy Church, in a deliberately archaic style quite unlike his usual work. In 1918 he was sent to France as an official artist, and this experience, together with the move from the country, seems to mark the beginning of a change in his personality. He became gradually more reserved and aloof, and at the end of his life he appeared to one friend as ‘a very lonely and pathetic figure’. He was Keeper of the Academy Schools from 1920 to 1926, and earned much of his living by portrait painting during this period.
In the last two years of his life he worked on a series which he called ‘Spirituals’ or ‘Spiritual Ideas’. (Though spiritualists claimed these works as representations of the ‘spirit world’ itself, Sims was adamant that this was not his intention.) As with The Seven Sacraments, these were quite unlike his previous work in style. For the first time he used abstract form and colour, the background of all the pictures suggesting a torn curtain through which some mystical experience is glimpsed. The figures also lean towards abstraction, and the paint is thin and flat. Six of these paintings were exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition of 1928, but shortly before this Sims had killed himself, tortured by insomnia and dreading the approach of old age.
During this last period he had been undergoing treatment by a ‘nerve specialist’, and after his suicide it was rumoured that he had been insane. Attempts were even made to keep his work out of the Academy exhibition. The painting Aspiration, which was part of the original Guttmann-Maclay Collection (the others having been added more recently), is presumed to have been acquired because of the belief that Sims was suffering from serious mental disorder. At present we do not know much about his actual state of mind, but there seems little doubt that his painting was profoundly affected, both in style and content, by the mental turmoil which he was experiencing. There is no doubt at all that the most powerful and original paintings of his whole career are to be found among these final works.
Tags: Beckenham, Bethlem Hospital, consultation, focus groups, local residents, Mansions in the Orchard, Max Reeves, Monks Orchard
Tags: Andrew Voyce, Maudsley, Side Effects, Virtual book club, volunteer
This month’s book is the graphic novel, ‘Side Effects’ by Andre Voyce, which has been reviewed by our volunteer, Harry Bentine.
A graphic novel is an unusual medium for an autobiography. Rendering memories visually from a third person perspective doesn’t allow for the intimacy and trust that more traditional memoirs strive to achieve. But, then again, Andrew Voyce’s Side Effects can hardly be called a traditional memoir. Set in a dialectic two-tonal colour scheme, it explores the dichotomy in identity that pervades an inpatient’s life as he is constantly split between two forms of existence: unmedicated and unchecked delusions outside of inpatient care on one side, and humiliating and degrading treatment inside of psychiatric hospitals on the other.
So it is unsurprising that the novel doesn’t instil the same intimacy and familiarity most autobiographies try to inspire. It is a story of metaphor and hyperbole, of delusion and anxiety. It is a story of the insurmountable walls between expression and reality, nervously challenged by the palimpsest layering of narrative onto memory. The deadpan narration, plotted around punctiform moments of distress, dislocates itself from the emotional eruptions of panic and delusion depicted in the cartoons through its distant, matter-of-fact tone. The storyboards are linked through an ambiguous time-frame which constantly changes in mitre. Time itself feels like it contracts and dilates around crystallised episodes of trauma, breaking down identity to a series of fragmented events which are thematically repeated in the humiliation and torture of involuntary injections.
In this sense, the novel explores and evaluates the fractured nature of identity. The protagonist wanders a world of shapeless and nameless silhouettes: outside consecrations of his personal alienation, a cast from which he hardly differentiates himself. In hospital, his Kafkaesque industrial therapy oppresses his desire from intellectual stimulus, further belittling his sense of individuality and identity. His invisibility becomes a matter of social oppression, until his only distinction from the rest of the ward is his striped shirt.
His treatment robs him of his identity until, like the lobotomised patient in the canteen, we see him sprawled cadaver-like in a surgery, awaiting the torture of his injections. The lifelessness of inpatient life is counterpoised with the turbulence of the delusions he suffers outside of psychiatric care. We are presented with has two identities and wants neither, whose self-perception is deformed and contorted either by over-medication or untreated delusions.
Overall then, Side Effects is a story about how we are forced to perceive ourselves; it is about how we diagnose and overcome turbulence in our own self-perceptions. Ending with a celebration of artistic expression for self-acceptance may seem an awkward and unfitting idea for a novel so suggestive of the disjuncture between narrative and identity, but here it really works. Advocating artistic creation as both cathartic and therapeutic, Andrew Voyce’s autobiography has become something of a case study, illustrating the need to develop more humane effective practices for the treatment of mental health. The cure suggested is not to change the person, but to change the picture in which he is presented.
Andrew Voyce’s graphic novel ‘Side Effects’ can be purchased directly from Andrew by emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org. Next month volunteer Kirsten Tambling will be reviewing Janet Frame’s ‘Faces in the Water’
Tags: administration block, Mansions in the Orchard, Max Reeves, Museum of the Mind, photography
In the last two months, work has begun in earnest on the Museum of the Mind in the administration building at Monks Orchard. Features and fittings added over the past eighty years have been slowly removed, leaving the skeleton of the 1930s building behind. As part of our Mansions in the Orchard project, artist Max Reeves has been documenting the building, capturing the continuity as well as the changes.
Ths builing still retains something of the people who have lived and worked in it over the years. An office chair waits patiently for its occupant to return, while a blue-tiled bathroom is still visible amid the rubble.
At a talk at Bromley Library earlier this month, we explored the Hospital’s move to Beckenham in the 1920s. The site has certainly changed considerably since that time, although remnants of the stately home on the Monks Orchard estate, and especially its former gatehouses, can still be found. Similarly, the administration block retains the features of the hospital: not least its style, based as the new Bethlem was on a villa system of self-contained units. Unlike Bethlem’s former home in St George’s Fields (now the Imperial War Museum), the admin block does not form the centre-point of the wings of various wards, but is a separate space.
The next stage of our project will explore this shifting architecture. How have Bethlem’s buildings reflected or shaped psychiatry of the twentieth century? And what role do these walls still play in the the experiences of those who use them?
All photographs copyright Max Reeves (2014)
Tags: Artist in Focus, Bethlem Art Collection, Madge Gill
Madge Gill spent most of her life in London. An illegitimate child, she was brought up by her mother and aunt until sent to an orphanage at the age of nine. Later she lived with another aunt who introduced her to spiritualism. She married in 1907. One of her three sons died in the influenza epidemic of 1918, and the next year she herself almost died giving birth to a stillborn daughter. In the illness which followed she lost the sight of one eye.
Around this time she began to draw, embroider and knit, often working in bed by the light of an oil lamp and even, it has been suggested, in total darkness. It is not clear how far, at the start, she attributed her inspiration to spiritualism. She later wrote: ‘I was in quite a normal state of mind and there was no suggestion of a “spirit” standing beside me. I simply felt inspired…I felt I was definitely guided by an unseen force, though I could not say what its actual nature was.’ However, she was soon convinced that the ‘unseen force’ was a spirit guide called ‘Myrninerest’.
Over the next forty years she made many hundreds of drawings, often at great speed. Many are on postcards or cardboard, but the largest and most typical are on calico, some of them more than thirty feet long. (A relatively small example, only about six feet long, is in the collection.) She would often work all night, standing in front of a huge roll of calico set up on a frame which had been specially made by her son so that it could be gradually unwound. The recurrent imagery is of a female figure with oval face and large eyes, whose flowing garments often merge into a background which hovers between abstract pattern and architectural form. This spatial ambiguity creates a world which is strongly identified, though not subject to the laws of earthly perspective. It is not hard to believe that this is the inner world of Madge Gill herself – or even, as she might say, of Myrninerest.
After her husband’s death in the 1930s she became more deeply involved in spiritualism, holding weekly seances with the ouija board. She exhibited some of her pictures, attracting favourable reviews, but always refused to sell on the grounds that they belonged to her spirit guide, not to her. At her death she left hundreds of drawings piled in wardrobes and under beds.
Tags: Augusta Stromberg, In the Frame, Levernes-tecking, Medicinhistoriska Museet, Uppsala
This month, In the Frame goes on holiday to Uppsala, Sweden, where our Development Officer recently visited the former Ulleråker Hospital. She writes:
Augusta Strömberg (1866 – 1954) was a patient at the Ulleråker Asylum, on the outskirts of Uppsala. Founded in 1811, the hospital services were gradually relocated and the historical buildings closed in the late twentieth century. Augusta was admitted to the institution in 1900, and diagnosed with schizophrenia. She remained at Ulleråker for most of the rest of her life, and apparently spent much of her time painting.
Her artworks are some of the most striking images on display in the museum associated with the hospital today. Largely self-taught, Augusta had nonetheless long shown a talent for art, and attempted to establish herself as an artist and portrait painter in her twenties. In Ulleråker, her stylised portraits were apparently sought after by staff, who bought artworks from her. The uniformed doctors and nurses, with their identical hairstyles, are largely indistinguishable today: as, perhaps, the people themselves might also have seemed when gathered in the wards. Their angular shoulders and stiff forms reflect a sense of order and firmness that is more formal than some of Augusta’s other portraits.
The more intricate images, however, occur in Augusta’s religious paintings. Strömberg was deeply concerned with religious themes, and had been preoccupied before her admission to hospital with creating a new religion. She continued to develop her ideas in the asylum through her artworks, often incorporating self-portraits into her images. Her hospitalisation had occurred at the age of thirty-three: the same age at which Jesus is supposed to have been crucified. This significant connection was incorporated by the artist into many of her pieces.
The image below is entitled Levernes-teckning (Autobiography), which connects Strömberg’s artistic practice to her life story. Religion and art seem to be closely associated in the frame-like rooms that make up the image, and there are only a few features that distinguish church from studio. The text at the bottom of the drawing is the artist’s own version of Latin, which includes several Swedish words incorporated into it.
These artworks can be viewed in the Medicinhistoriska Museum, located in the former administrative building of the hospital. Alongside an impressive collection of medical and surgical history, the museum contains an entire floor dedicated to the asylum itself. As well as Augusta’s art, there is a very varied collection of materials including a fascinating array of keys fashioned by patients out of other items and a film projector bought by the hospital in 1917. You can find out more about the museum, in English, on the Destination Uppsala website.
Images reproduced by kind permission of the Medicinhistoriska Museet, Uppsala University. With thanks to Urban Josefsson and staff at the museum.