Posts Tagged 'Henry Hering'

Hospital Snapshots 8

The last posts have considered the composition of the image and how much these asylum photographs may have had in common with mainstream portraits.  How also, sitters’ clothing, pose and surrounding objects might reveal something of their individuality.

It is important to stress that hospital records, whether written or visual, are not the last word on an individual, nor the most significant aspect of their life.  They record a tiny chapter and were not produced by or for the patient concerned, were not seen by them and were solely for the hospital’s use.  While it is impossible at this remove to accurately gauge the input patients may have had, they might have been able to exercise some autonomy over their photograph, albeit in a small way.

Not everyone chooses to meet us face to face.  Less than a quarter of the photographs, show the individual looking directly to camera, though it should be noted that this was very much in line with the conventions of the time.

Those who meet the camera’s, and by extension, our scrutiny do not always invite us to come closer.  Daniel McNaughton, who assassinated the Prime Minister’s private secretary in 1843, looks out squarely enough.  However, the lowered brows, untroubled gaze and slightly parted lips through which we can see the teeth, coupled with the folded arms and closed body language make us keep our distance.  The books on the table next to him appear incongruous; we are not convinced he has read them.

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Even those patients who are not looking at us directly or are deliberately looking away, can be no less revealing.

The case notes for Thomas Wilson, a non-conformist minister suffering from severe melancholia comment:  ‘The expression of his countenance is a good evidence of his mental wretchedness.’[1]

Sitting with slumped shoulders and loosely clasped hands, he seems entirely oblivious to the presence of anyone else.  He is not merely looking away but is disengaged from the whole process.  His eyes are open but not fully focused and we have the impression of someone fixed on something within.  His slightly unkempt hair and baggy suit add to a sense of distraction.

Looking at his photograph 150 years later, we too might make the same observation of ‘mental wretchedness’. Wilson, previously well respected by those he ministered to, later tried to commit suicide and, although unsuccessful, never recovered.  He was later transferred to an asylum nearer his native Norwich.

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[1] Bethlem case book 1858

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:  We want to use this as a chance to show that you cannot tell if someone has a mental health issue by their appearance.


Hospital Snapshots 7

Last month’s post considered clothing in the Hering photographs and the opportunities it offered for patients to express some individuality.  The gestures, position and objects surrounding the sitter could also further this sense of personality.

It is probably wise to assume that, to some extent at least, the subjects were posed.  Within the limits imposed by time and asylum life, each image is carefully crafted.  In common with Hering’s mainstream work and in the tradition of much portrait painting, the sitter is presented with no distraction for the viewer, anything additional serving a specific purpose.  Over half the Bethlem photographs merely portray the patient.  Even here, it is interesting to speculate how many adopted natural poses without direction from Hering.   Also, to what extent patients had a view of how they wished to represent themselves.  The studied indifference suggested by the pose of John Payne (see Hospital Snapshots 3) is likely, given what we know about the patient, to be entirely of his own volition. photo ECsmall1_zpsa4959dbf.jpg

The sitters would not have known Hering at the outset and we might consider how comfortable they would feel being photographed, and what level of negotiation took place.  In her photograph, Eliza Camplin  ‘made some objection to her own dress, which she evidently thought not very becoming; and she at length made it a condition of her sitting quiet that she should be represented with a book in her hand.  The book, indeed, was held upside down; but it did quite as well.’1 It would appear that she felt able to enter into some conversation with the photographer and also had her own ideas about what a sitter should be doing when photographed.

A number of the photographs employ the device of having the subject seemingly interrupted from a particular task, adding to the sense of naturalism; the viewer has been allowed privileged access.  It is a device that Hering employed with his society figures.  Elizabeth Thew was admitted to Bethlem in 1852 after being tried for the murder of her two-month-old infant.  Here, her carefully parted hair and cap, her tidy appearance and half smile present a more calm and demure image than her history might suggest.  She is meeting our gaze, having seemingly looked up from her needlework.

Setting and objects might also allude to more specific interests.  During his time at Bethlem, Edward Oxford acquired some skill in house painting and offered to paint some of the wards.  In Hering’s portrait, (Hospital Snapshots 6) he is standing as if taking a break, having just perhaps come down his ladder.  The paint pot rests on the step and the brush he holds has already been used.  The paint looks about to drip.  The pose is an informal one; he appears relaxed, assured, his body loose.  In reality, of course, this portrait is no less carefully crafted.  Props such as the ladder were also practical, providing a stabilising point for a sitter who would need to remain still for some time to take account of exposure times.

Props could also be used to indicate previous occupation.  Here we see George Johnston, a merchant ship captain, his profession identified, in the tradition of occupational photography, with his sextant.  He presents something of a slight figure.  He is not looking to camera but up at something unseen, perhaps the heavens whose stars would have guided his ship.

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1 John Conolly, ‘The Physiognomy of Insanity’ published in the Medical Times and Gazette 1858

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:  We want to use this as a chance to show that you cannot tell if someone has a mental health issue by their appearance.

Hospital Snapshots 6

One of the aspects that make the Hering collection fascinating is how much they resemble portraits, either painted or photographic, rather than institutional mug shots.  For the most part, the clothing, pose and objects would not look out of the ordinary in a conventional portrait of the time.

Photography, as a new medium in the late 1850s, may well have been something of a novelty for the type of patient Bethlem admitted.  To have a photograph taken in this early period might have been seen as a mark of distinction. Queen Victoria herself had been photographed and the photographic series ‘Living Celebrities’, published monthly by Maul and Polybank, depicted key individuals such as politicians, churchmen and writers, alongside their biographies.  Bethlem’s patients might not only have enjoyed the experience of a photographic session, but have had their own ideas about how they should be shown according to the photographic conventions as they understood them.

As in painting, clothing is an important indicator of circumstance, individuality and taste.  Although the hospital did not issue clothing, for patients choice may have been somewhat limited.   A number are wearing dresses of the same material and style, perhaps because Bethlem bought in fabric and ‘sewing parties’ were held in which the female patients could make  or alter their own clot photo EA2medium_zps6a721aab.jpghing.  Despite these constraints many of the photographs show touches of refinement and personality, perhaps giving a hint to the individual themselves.

The patient we know only as EA is dressed as a respectable, middle class woman.  Her clothes are neat and well made but not showy, the material good but not expensive.  Her hair is firmly tied back, though unusually not covered.  There are touches of decoration such as the ruffles on the sleeves of the dress, lace collar and cuffs.  A fringed shawl is draped around her.  She has taken care over her appearance.

In other photographs, clothing and occupation are more closely allied.  Edward Oxford, the would-be assassin of Queen Victoria, is shown here as if taking a break from his decorating.  He appears to be dressed for the task in hand, wearing a painting overall on which can be seen some traces of paint.  Though the shirt underneath looks fairly standard, the tie appears worn for the occasion.

Clothing was clearly, at least to some extent, within the control of the sitter and helped give personality to each image; next month’s post will consider pose and props.

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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:  We want to use this as a chance to show that you cannot tell if someone has a mental health issue by their appearance.

Hospital Snapshots 5

It is impossible to say with certainty why patients were photographed at Bethlem in the 1850s. Although documenting the ‘physiognomy of insanity’ may be one reason, building a body of evidence for the success of the new regime in the hospital may well have been another.

The Bethlem collection contains 6 pairs showing the same individual on admission and when convalescent. These ‘before and after’ shots might have been taken to allow doctors, and now us, to see the transformation that had taken place and evidence the claim of recovery. In all but one set, the patient is seated in the initial picture and standing when convalescing, perhaps conveying the idea of greater energy and purpose as they move towards recovery.

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In the last set, this order is reversed. Harriet Jordan, a 24-year-old cloak and mantle maker, is standing in the first photograph but seated and occupied in the second. It is perhaps startling that there is only a matter of months between the two. When Harriet was suffering from mania, she had been quite agitated, ripping her clothes and being generally destructive. For her, recovery might be more appropriately seen in the tranquil and decorous pose of a Victorian lady at her sewing.

In the second photograph she appears to have looked up from her needlework, a not uncommon photographic device at the time. One hand holds the fabric in her lap, her elbow resting on the table holding her thread. Her hair, curled either side, accentuates its roundness and the light flattens it. Though she is looking to camera and has the beginning of a smile, both unusual in the conventions of the time, her gaze is a touch vacant and reveals little. Her face is not shown in close up and the viewer is separated from her by her skirts. Although she is not seated behind the table, its edge and the positioning of her arms, marks the mid-point and forms something of a barrier. The overall impression is of an ordered and respectable woman, meeting the social conventions of the time and keeping onlookers at a suitable distance.

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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:  We want to use this as a chance to show that you cannot tell if someone has a mental health issue by their appearance.

Hospital Snapshots 4

The previous posts in this series have looked at the importance of photography in illustrating certain psychiatric conditions. Contemporaries noted the value of the photograph over other forms of illustration for the way it was able to pay close attention to detail and record minute points of expression; especially important when using the image for diagnostic purposes. It is perhaps therefore surprising that the Bethlem photographs show more than just a head and shoulders view where the face is only a small proportion of the whole. Long lenses were available at the time and could have given a closer shot of facial features.

Photographs were useful for reasons other than diagnosis1 and, in the case of the photo below, it may have been the family relationship that it was thought important to document. This is the only double portrait in the Bethlem collection showing a father and son resident in the hospital at the same time. We might infer their relationship from their positioning, the son with a hand possibly on the back of the father’s chair. There appears no communication between them but perhaps the connection is made through the alignment of their heads and hands. Family history of mental illness was one of the standard questions asked on admission and this photograph might have been taken to provide visual evidence of this. They are dressed alike and we see the same view of their faces with their downcast eyes, set mouth and lowered chin and brows.

Thomas Bailey was 69 at the time this photograph was taken, his son John, 44. Both had been admitted to Bethlem suffering from melancholia. In Thomas’s case, the condition was triggered by the illness and subsequent death of his wife. John was admitted a month later: the stated cause, the death of his mother. Although their illness presented in different ways there were common features: both for example were reluctant to eat, and both appeared to have had something of a history of melancholia, having had previous hospital admissions.

There appeared to be some improvement in each case. Both earned their living as gardeners and, after a time, were persuaded to interest themselves in the gardens at Bethlem. Sadly though, neither case had a positive outcome. Thomas died at Bethlem and his son was discharged uncured.

1 Hugh Welch Diamond, ‘On the Application of Photography to the Physiognomic and Mental Phenomena of Insanity, read before the Royal Society’, 22 May 1856

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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:  We want to use this as a chance to show that you cannot tell if someone has a mental health issue by their appearance.

Holding Your Nerve 3

Bethlem’s collection of photographs of Victorian-era patients taken by Henry Hering (currently on display at Museum Dr Guislain in Belgium, as we reported last month) have again been the subject of artistic interest. Earlier this year a brief but evocative filmic response to the photographs of Eliza C. and Thomas W. was made and uploaded to YouTube by Nathalie Joffre. Now a three-screen installation by Joffre, entitled He told me that his garden…, is about to be exhibited this month in the galleries of the London College of Communication, as part of a display of the College’s MA photography student work called A Forming State. The installation showcases her further response to the Hering collection. “For me”, she writes, “exploring Hering’s archives has involved the experience of a double inability: the inability to look at them as a simple collection of portraits and also my inability to appropriate them entirely. However, these inabilities have not meant failure, but an endless process of exploring, feeling, imagining, and remembering.” Eagle-eyed viewers of He told me that his garden… may care to weigh our Archivist’s merits as a ‘hand actor’!

A Forming State runs from 14 to 24 November 2012 at London College of Communication, SE1 6SB (nearest tube Elephant and Castle). Hours are 10am to 6pm, Monday to Friday from 14 to 23 November inclusive, and additionally 10am to 4pm on Saturday 17 and Saturday 24 November.

Hospital Snapshots 1

This series will focus on the collection of photographs taken at Bethlem in the late 1850s by Victorian photographer Henry Hering.  Hering was a noted photographer of his day with his own studio at 137 Regent Street, good society connections and royal patronage.  Photographing patients of Bethlem would appear to be something of a departure.

Bethlem in the 1850s was changing under the reforming leadership of the new superintendent physician, Charles Hood.  It is Hood himself, rather than the hospital, who appears to have commissioned Hering; perhaps in part to document patients under his new enlightened regime.  It is likely that Hering was also attempting to document what was then known as the ‘physiognomy of insanity’; the idea that the face could reveal the essential nature within. Medicine at this point was attempting to classify mental illness and doctors saw the potential of the image for diagnosis.

John Conolly, the superintendent physician at Hanwell Asylum believed that those trained to observe patients’ physiognomy were better able to recognise and respond to signs of mental disorder.  He thought that melancholy for example would show the external signs of ‘a dusky and partially flushed complexion, …the head well formed anteriorly; forehead broad, but usually deficient in height.’

Examining this photograph of Eliza Josolyne he commented ‘The eyebrows are seen drawn into puckers expressive of inward suffering; and the upper lids droop over the downcast eyes.  Beneath the lower lids are furrows….The lower lip is depressed by the prevalent sorrowful thoughts; and the body and head droop in opposite directions.

Eliza was first admitted to Bethlem in 1851 aged 18 in an agitated and delusional state from which she recovered and was discharged.  Her two subsequent hospital admissions in 1856 and 1857, when this photograph was taken, describe her as having low mood.  Her illness is ascribed to anxiety at work and an inability to cope with being responsible for 16 rooms in a house where she was the only domestic.

We will return to Eliza’s story next month.


This research is being supported by a bursary from the Understanding British Portraits subject network.

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:  We want to use this as a chance to show that you cannot tell if someone has a mental health issue by their appearance.