This year’s Art History in the Pub has so far focused on psychiatric history, and next week’s (Monday 25 February) will look at Bethlem in particular. Art History in the Pub is a series of events run by the Association of Art Historians (AAH): a series of relaxed yet informative talks held in The Monarch Pub in Camden. January’s talk, by Jennifer Wallis from Queen Mary, University of London, explored an unusual series of images: the photographs collected by asylum medical officers in the late nineteenth century. Jennifer works with the archives of the West Riding Asylum in Wakefield, which was well-known in the Victorian period as a hub for “asylum science”. The hospital had a pathology laboratory, and staff took regular photographs of what Wallis called “fragments of the insane body”, focusing in on growths or bone deformities with the use of fabric screens and close framing. These fragments, also including pulse tracings, microscope slides and post-mortem dissections, were all incorporated into a “visual record of bodily anomalies”.
Next week’s talk moves away from photography to look at the Bethlem art collections, focusing on a public exhibition of patient art organised by physician Theo Hyslop in 1900. Hyslop has often been dismissed by historians as, at best, the “representative of the psychiatry of degeneration in Britain”. Nicholas Tromans and Sarah Chaney challenge this view, by settings Hyslop’s work in the context of turn-of-the-century psychiatric practice – in particular, that at Bethlem. Historians of Outsider Art agree that the 1900 exhibition was the earliest recorded public display of psychiatric art, yet virtually nothing seems to be known of it. The exhibition, which comprised no fewer than 600 works, was curated by Hyslop, who had evidently been collecting patient art for some time. But why did psychiatrists of this period collect the art of their patients, and what did they expect to learn from it? And what was the place of art at Bethlem at the turn of the twentieth century?
Art, the Archive and the Avant-Garde Asylum, c. 1890 – 1914 takes place on Monday February 25, at 7.30pm at the Monarch, 40-42 Chalk Farm Road, NW1 8BG (Camden Town or Chalk Farm tube). For more information on Art History in the Pub, visit the AAH website or Facebook page.