In the Frame for March 2012

This month for In the Frame, our Friends Secretary has chosen to highlight an anonymous sketch, which forms part of the lantern slide collection put together in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century by Bethlem Chaplain, Geoffrey O’Donoghue. She writes:

“While researching my PhD, I’ve recently been reading through early copies of the Bethlem magazine, Under the Dome, and uncovered some interesting background about a sketch that has long interested me. The drawing, used by O’Donoghue in his lectures on the history of the Hospital, depicts the distinctive, dome-topped St George’s Fields building as a birdcage. The image is double-edged. One obvious interpretation is its representation of the loss of freedom for certified patients (patients are depicted inside the cage while the staff, one of whom holds a large key, are outside). In addition, however, the birdcage became a widely-used symbol of asylum life in the period. Many hospitals, including Bethlem, kept birdcages on wards, representing the keen interest many Victorian psychiatrists held in the importance of domestic life to therapeutics. The asylum was intended to provide a sanctuary that, nonetheless, was reminiscent of home, and the birdcage was both decorative and provided “natural” companionship through domestic pets; the parrot on male ward 3 received a veritable plethora of mentions in Under the Dome until its sad obituary in September 1895.

“Since I first encountered this image a few years ago, I’ve remained interested in the variety of associations within it, as well as its potentially subversive nature. What surprised me in my recent discovery was to learn that the artist of the sketch was female. The vast majority of asylum art, poetry and other artefacts of the period retained by (male) doctors was created by male patients, making this sketch by “Kentish Scribbler” (the artist’s pseudonym) unusual to say the least. Two additional points are also of interest, and might suggest some re-evaluation of asylum life in this period. O’Donoghue describes the sketch as having been drawn “when the artist was a patient”, which must have been in the mid-1870s given the medical officers she depicts. Within the birdcage are “are the figures of the artist, and other well-known patients of the period.” The artist herself is presumably the female bird depicted in one of the circular windows of the dome: most of the other “well-known patients” are, however, male, which puts a question mark over the strict segregation of the sexes we often assume in this period. What’s more, Kentish Scribbler gave the sketch to O’Donoghue more than twenty years after its completion, at which time she was apparently no longer a patient. Nonetheless, her association with the Hospital was ongoing: she began contributing puzzles and poems to Under the Dome in its first printed issue in 1893, and appeared in every issue until her sudden death in May 1902 (when a short obituary, retaining her pseudonym, was printed). Having depicted the Hospital as a cage in the 1870s, why did Kentish Scribbler remain associated with it into the twentieth century? Did she regularly visit, or even work in the 1890s Hospital? It seems the more I learn about this sketch, the more intriguing it becomes…”

Kentish Scribbler sketch

The four staff members on the outside of the bird-cage are (clockwise from top-left): Mr Haydon (Steward 1853 – 89), Rev. Vaughan (Chaplain 1865 – 91), Dr Williams (Superintendent 1865 – 78), Dr Savage (Assistant Medical Officer 1872 – 78)

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