This month, the Friend’s Secretary has chosen to highlight a painting displayed at the recent Museum of the Mind exhibition at the Bethlem Gallery: Russell Barton’s Potential Murderers? The sheer size of this picture means that it is rarely possible to display it at present, but it provides an interesting talking point. One interpretation, used in the exhibition, is that the painting questions one of the common public misconceptions surrounding mental ill-health. The “potential murderers” of the title might thus refer to the seated figures of patients along the wall, the bowed heads and subdued attitudes indicating how ludicrous the generalisation can be. As Barton himself apparently said, “In our mental hospitals today, there are thousands of harmless patients, people who have never done harm, people who never will do harm.”
Yet the figure of the nurse in the foreground is the first thing that draws the viewer’s attention, her face cold and unsmiling, perhaps ignoring those in her care. Meanwhile, the stark walls of the institution fill most of the background: perhaps it is this, and those who run it, that is suggested to have the potential for murder. Barton, who died in 2002 after a lengthy psychiatric career, was an advocate for community care and asylum closure. His key textbook – Institutional Neurosis – argued that asylum care generated a neurotic condition in patients over and above their original ill-health. Colleagues considered that Barton’s experiences at Shenley and Severalls Hospitals (following his training at the Maudsley under Aubrey Lewis) encouraged this thesis: this painting was probably painted during his time at the latter, in the 1960s. The extreme nature of the painting’s title might also reflect the doctor’s early experiences: as a medical student, in the aftermath of the second world war, he volunteered to attend the survivors at Belsen, one of the most notorious Nazi concentration camps.
The starkest contrast in the painting is that between the muted colours of the hospital walls and the bright blue and green landscape beyond. One lone patient stares, perhaps wistfully, through the railings at this apparent utopia beyond. A rather romanticised view, perhaps, reflecting the hopes of those who fought to close asylums in the late twentieth century. An addition to Barton’s obituary in The Psychiatrist, from a friend and colleague, noted that “He never regretted his role in the deinstitutionalisation movement, although he recognised, like the rest of us, that the actual performance fell well short of what he would have wished to see happen.”1
1 Miodrag Ristich, “Obituary of Dr Russell Barton” The Psychiatrist (2003) 27: 196.