Art in Madness: New Book on Nineteenth Century Collections

One of the most famous former Bethlem patients was artist Richard Dadd, committed to Bethlem’s Criminal Lunatics Department in 1844, after murdering his father in the belief that he was the Devil. During his twenty years in the Hospital (before transfer to the newly-built Broadmoor Hospital), Dadd was encouraged to continue painting, and many of his most famous works were painted there, including Contradiction: Oberon and Titania.

Dadd was not the only patient in Bethlem who painted in this period; casebooks record that both male and female patients were frequently occupied in painting and drawing. Dadd was also not the only artist treated in the Hospital. For example, 25-year-old Henry Hudson, admitted in April 1888, exhibited four paintings at the Royal Academy in 1889, despite the fact that his occupation was deemed, in part, to blame for his illness, for he had ”fallen violently in love with a lady whose portrait he was painting. Was so emotionally disturbed that he could not go on with the work.” Painting was regarded as occupational, preventing patients from dwelling on their troubles. It could also help to make the galleries more “cheerful”, providing an environment regarded as conducive to cure. In 1883, George Savage wrote:

“During the past year we have been engaged in painting artistically one of the male Infirmaries … on the whole the result has been satisfactory … [and] we have had several patients among the ladies who have developed quite a taste for the work, and next year I hope to carry this decorative work into several of the other wards.”

In such an instance, the occupational content of the “decorative work” was regarded as most important – thus suggesting why much patient artwork of the period was not kept by asylums. One collection, however, does remain. A new book, published by the Dumfries & Galloway Health Board, allows fascinating access to the collection of Dr. W.A.F. Browne, former Physician Superintendent of the Crichton Royal Institution. Maureen Park, Lecturer in History of Art at the University of Glasgow, gives extensive historical context and notes on the artworks, created by at least thirty-six men and ten women at the asylum between 1839 and 1857. The full colour prints are thus accompanied by notes on the artists, and their experiences in the hospital, making for an insightful volume. Park regards the collection as a “testament to Browne’s commitment to moral treatment, his dedication to patient care and his belief in the therapeutic power of art.” Yet, as art continues to retain strong links with treatment, and the possible connections between creativity and mental illness remain a topic of considerable debate, the collection surely holds a much broader interest than the simple biographical.

The art collection is now housed in the Dumfries & Galloway Archives. Art in Madness by Maureen Park costs £25, and is available from the Dumfries & Galloway Health Board.

Richard Dadd - Sketch
Richard Dadd: Sketch to Illustrate the Passions – Brutality

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