Hospital Snapshots 9

In 1856, when speaking about the photographs he had taken of his patients, Hugh Welch Diamond, superintendent of the Surrey County Lunatic asylum, commented that:

‘photography …. presents also a perfect and faithful record, free altogether from the painful caricaturing which so disfigures almost all the published portraits of the Insane as to render them nearly valueless either for the purposes of art or of Science.’1

Diamond’s view was certainly that photography could provide images of a different order to these earlier drawings but at the time these sketches were considered to be important and useful. Hospital Snapshots has concentrated so far on the series of photographs taken at Bethlem in the late 1850s. The next posts will examine one set of these earlier drawings, those commissioned by Alexander Morison.

Morison began his medical career in his native Edinburgh before moving to London in 1808. He became inspector of Surrey lunatic asylums in 1810 and Bethlem superintendent from 1835. In the 1830s and ’40s he commissioned artists, principally Alexander Johnstone and Charles Gow, to draw patients at a number of asylums, including Bethlem, with which he was associated. These were in part to illustrate his book The Physiognomy of Mental Diseases in which he examined five main illnesses classified in the language of the time: mania, monomania, dementia, idiocy, imbecility. These images therefore focus predominantly on the face.

The drawings are now held in the Royal College of Physicians, Edinburgh. They are more obviously working documents than the finished prints of the Hering series. Each image is drawn on a single sheet of paper, not all the same size or colour. For most it is possible to identify the artist and Morison often makes reference to artists sketching particular individuals in his diary.

The majority show a three-quarter profile or full face, displaying the head, shoulders and upper body, only occasionally anything more. The face is the most detailed part, with features, hair and complexion fully worked up. In contrast, the rest of the body is generally sketched in outline only. Though collars and hats are worked more fully, other indications of clothing are generally only sketched, where they can be seen at all. In a small number restraints, such as mittens, are visible.

There are no details of the room or surroundings and there is no record of the circumstances in which the drawing was made, whether the patient gave consent or how long the drawing took. Most of the sitters are unoccupied and there are no books or sewing to act as props.

The majority are shown twice or three times at various stages of illness and recovery. They are captioned with a date, place and set of initials alongside a diagnosis and their current state. One for example captioned ‘drawn during a lucid interval.’ The next post will examine one of the series in detail.

[1] Diamond, Portraits of the Insane, London: Burrows and Schumacher (1990)

sketch from Morison's book

Sketch from Morison’s Physiognomy of Mental Diseases (Wellcome Library, London)

UPDATE: If you want to help us to bring our photography collection into the 21st century then help us win the chance to work with acclaimed photographer, Rankin by voting here: http://bit.ly/voteBethlem.  We want to use this as a chance to show that you cannot tell if someone has a mental health issue by their appearance.

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