Posts Tagged 'In the Spotlight'



In the Spotlight: A.W. Pugin

With due respect to those who have been put In the Spotlight so far, it cannot be said that any of them are actually household names. We warned about this at the outset of the series. Only a few of the patients we are featuring emerged from relative obscurity in their own lifetimes, and (given that all were admitted before 1939) their stars have long since waned. Last month’s post is a case in point. George Gilbert Scott Junior’s architectural achievements warrant recognition; yet who remembers him today? That said, the contemporary profile of this month’s subject, like Scott Junior an architect (and like him a convert to Roman Catholicism), is a little higher than usual. His principal works (the clock tower at Westminster popularly known as ‘Big Ben’ and the spire of Tolbooth St John’s among them) continue to define the skylines of British cities. Of him, Scott’s more famous father could write, ‘He was our leader and our most able pioneer’.1 His name, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, is virtually synonymous with the Gothic Revival.

This is not the place to attempt a biography of the man (interested readers may follow the footnotes to this piece to find one), or to do anything other than place on record (as biographers have previously done) his five and a half weeks’ residence at Bethlem in the summer of 1852, suffering what a contemporary psychiatrist with access to Pugin’s Victorian medical notes has described as ‘mania without psychotic symptoms’ (F30.1 in the 1992 edition of International Classification of Diseases), and in a state of collapse following a sustained period of overwork. At one point Pugin’s Bethlem doctor, Alexander Morison, described how he ‘got him to make a sketch of his church at Ramsgate’ – St Augustine’s, on which he had been working since 1845 – but ‘so soon as he had completed [the sketch], he tore it up’. No mental improvement was recorded by Morison, yet at the end of July Pugin was discharged at the request, and into the care, of his friends and family. He died within seven weeks of leaving the Hospital, the cause of death recorded as ‘convulsions followed by coma’.2 His life, though short, left a legacy which can still be seen today in the built heritage of Britain. It is appropriate, perhaps, that the once-derelict house in Ramsgate in which he lived and died, The Grange, has been restored by a conservation charity and is now available for holiday lettings.

1 Rosemary Hill, God’s Architect: Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain (Penguin, 2008), p. 1.

2 ibid. p. 492

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In the Spotlight: George Gilbert Scott Junior

Since the subject of this month’s In the Spotlight is George Gilbert Scott Junior (1839-1897), arguably one of the least known of a family of prominent architects, one might be tempted to (unkindly) dub it ‘In the Shadows’. Scott’s father of the same name was a key figure in Victorian architecture’s Gothic Revival, and was responsible for the Albert Memorial in Hyde Park, the Foreign Office, and the University of Glasgow’s Bute and Randolph Halls, along with many other domestic, public and ecclesiastical buildings. His son, Giles Gilbert Scott, was behind such ‘Gothic-modernist’ projects as Liverpool Cathedral, Battersea Power Station, Cambridge University Library and William Booth College in Denmark Hill, but is best remembered for having designed the iconic red London telephone box. His brother, John Scott, and remote cousin Elisabeth Scott, were also well-known architects of their respective generations.

Certainly George Gilbert Scott Junior had his own share of success, but he is less well remembered today, perhaps because two of his masterpieces (the Anglo-Catholic churches of All Hallows, Southwark and St Agnes, Kennington) were destroyed in the Blitz. The survival of a third signature ecclesiastical work (St John’s, Norwich, now a Roman Catholic diocesan cathedral) might be thought to be wryly appropriate in the light of his own conversion to Rome in 1880. Scott’s career was also disrupted by ill-health, both mental and physical, and alcoholism. Following a period of erratic, delusional and occasionally paranoid behaviour, he was admitted to Bethlem Hospital in July 1883. While in hospital, Scott commenced work on another of his ecclesiastical commissions, St Augustine’s Church in Hull. According to his modern biographer, the “notes [and] drawings made while he was confined were meticulously dated, as if to engage in academic or artistic activity…gave him a feeling of security and a hold on his sanity”.1

Three months after his admission, Scott escaped the Hospital and fled the country, but shortly afterwards returned to England and to hospital, though not this time to Bethlem. He spent the next ten years in and out of hospital, but continued to “devote his best energies” to his architectural work, his attacks having “not affected his business capacity at all”, as his brother John wrote to one worried client.2

Scott died of cirrhosis of the liver and heart disease at the age of 67, while resident at the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras Station (ironically another of his father’s best known works, now restored and renamed the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel). The most affecting tribute to him came many years later, in his son Giles’ judgement of the respective professional merits of George Gilbert Senior and Junior: “Grandfather was the successful practical man, and a phenomenal scholar in Gothic precedent, but Father was the artist”.3

1 Gavin Stamp, An Architect of Promise: George Gilbert Scott Junior (1839-1897) and the Late Gothic Revival (2002), p. 334.

2 ibid., p. 337.

3 ibid., p. 361.

In the Spotlight: Antonia White

Philip O’Connor, the writer highlighted in last month’s In the Spotlight, wrote of his sense that “a thick glass pane…had been fixed between [him] and the world” upon his departure from the intense, even ‘intellectual’ environment of the Maudsley Hospital.

To another author of the same generation, who experienced the equally heightened atmosphere of the wards of Bethlem Hospital, the divider that mattered most was not a metaphorical one that separated her emotionally from others, but the window pane of her room at hospital, through which “she could see into a garden” in which “women and nurses were walking…like figures cut out of coloured paper”.

“And she could see birds flying across the sky, not real birds, but bird-shaped kites, lined with strips of white metal, that flew on wires. Only the clouds had thickness and depth and looked as clouds had looked in the other world. …They would take shape after shape to amuse her, shapes of swans, of feathers, of charming ladies with fluffy white muffs and toques, of soldiers in white busbies.”

Upon her departure from Bethlem, her perspective was reversed to that of someone on the outside looking in. “She no longer belonged to the world beyond the glass. There were moments when she almost wished she did. … Beyond the glass, however agonising the nightmare experiences, they had had a peculiar intensity.”

These quotations are from Beyond the Glass, the last novel in a trilogy of autobiographical fiction written by Antonia White (1899-1980). Nine months’ residence at Bethlem in 1922-23, when the hospital was located in Southwark, is vividly represented in this novel. This is not the place to attempt a summary either of the work or the life of its author. The dust-jacket of Jane Dunn’s 1998 biography of White promises a study of a “single parent and working mother” who “wrestled with the large questions of faith … Catholicism … being a woman and an artist”, not to mention “the threat of madness” (Antonia White: A Life). This is sufficient reason, we think, to read White’s novels (maybe Dunn’s biography too). In them White gives evocative, and at times searing, accounts of her experiences in and out of hospital.

Then for the short story ‘Surprise Visit’ (published in an anthology entitled Strangers), White drew upon her experience of returning, out of curiosity, to the Southwark site of her hospitalisation, some time after Bethlem had relocated to Beckenham and the Imperial War Museum had moved in. There White attributed to her protagonist the “peculiar satisfaction” she no doubt felt “to measure how far and how successfully she had travelled since that deplorably bad start”.

Antonia White

Used by kind permission of the National Portrait Gallery

In the Spotlight: Philip O’Connor

In last month’s In the Spotlight, we wrote of the oft-supposed link between ‘genius’ and ‘madness’ that “without ever coalescing into a testable hypothesis, …finds anecdotal support within both popular culture and academic discourse”. An example we might have cited is that of the bohemian writer and poet Philip O’Connor (1916-1998), who (in his autobiographical Memoirs of a Public Baby) admitted that at one time he had shared the “prevailing scientifically ignorant conception of neurosis as the unemployed, wasted part of imaginative talent”. O’Connor’s own experience of psychological imbalance and hospitalisation must have contributed to his eventual rejection of such an easy identification. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and admitted to the Maudsley Hospital at the age of twenty on 21 September 1936, declaring (according to his autobiography) that, whilst willing to be there, he had no hope of changing.

 

O’Connor despised his doctors: “I couldn’t believe them capable of understanding me, and certainly didn’t want them to…They appeared to me desperately on the outside of a world they’d give their world to enter; I treated them as unprivileged gate-crashers.” Yet of the Maudsley he wrote: “I liked the place very much, being allowed more or less to do as I pleased, painting, writing and not having to ‘work’; and certainly having my psyche seriously considered wasn’t, in a coarse way, unflattering”. The atmosphere on the ward he found “normal” but “heightened”. Of one memorable night, that of 30 November 1936, he wrote “I awoke as from a trance, and, in the glare of the Crystal Palace which was burning – we could see it from the veranda where we slept – I caught a snap-glimpse of other patients, some dressed, and felt them, from their clothes mostly, to be thrillingly contemporary, of today, absolutely, and I imagined an element of cure in this experience…”

 

O’Connor’s recovery, though sufficient to warrant his discharge on 20 March 1937, did not serve to lift his spirits. “I left…with the consciousness of having become a grubby, conventional ‘intellectual’; and that a thick glass pane, as is proper to such ‘intellectuals’, had been fixed between me and the world”. If the Maudsley was O’Connor’s university, he certainly rued his graduation. “I felt old, cynical, departmentalised, my mind in its sensory remove from the world working much harder and more consistently, but lacking the original spurts and ‘inspirations’, and on a thinner diet”.

 

Nevertheless, the Maudsley seems to have been the accidental crucible of O’Connor’s future career. On admission, his occupation was given as ‘painter’, and he is the one person included in this series of posts whose artistic work features in the collections of the Archives & Museum. As part of an experiment conducted by Drs Eric Guttman and Walter Maclay (which was recently the subject of a temporary exhibition at the Bethlem Gallery) O’Connor was given the drug mescaline and asked to represent its hallucinogenic effects in his art (an example of which is given below). Yet O’Connor’s first piece of published poetry was written while he was in hospital, and seeing his name in print set him on the literary course for which he subsequently became known.

There is more about Philip O’Connor in Andrew Barrow’s Quentin and Philip: A Double Portrait (MacMillan, 2002).

Lovely (2)

In the Spotlight: Dennis Lillie

In introducing this series of posts, we wrote that since mental distress is no respecter of persons, one would expect a small percentage of our historic hospital admissions to have been of those in the public eye. Into this statistical commonplace many have wanted to read a causal link: Isn’t there something about mental ill-health that gives rise to talent or celebrity, or perhaps vice versa? This type of speculation is expressed most persistently in terms of ‘madness’ and (often artistic) ‘creativity’. Without ever coalescing into a testable hypothesis, it finds anecdotal support within both popular culture and academic discourse.

There is a fresh version of this argument in extracts from Tom Griffiths’ Slicing the Silence: Voyaging to Antarctica (Harvard UP, 2007) recently published in an Australian newspaper:

“At least three of the crew of Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance were “mentally deranged” by their harrowing escape from the ice. Did Antarctica make these men “go mad” or did it attract people with a certain extremism in their personalities, not just looking for the edge but already near it? Whatever your state of mind, Antarctica can be destabilising, it can be life-changing.”1

One of these polar explorers was Dennis Gascoigne Lillie (1884-1963). Cambridge-educated Lillie (not to be confused with the similarly-named Australian cricketer of the 1970s) served with distinction as a marine biologist on Robert Scott’s ill-fated Antarctic Expedition of 1910-1913. His observational studies on birds and whales, and his caricature sketches of fellow members of the expedition, were subsequently published and much sought after. Along with other expedition survivors, he was awarded the Polar Medal. He served as a military bacteriologist during the First World War, whilst objecting to combat duties on grounds of conscience.

Lillie’s mental health failed in 1918, and he was admitted depressed, delusional and suicidal to Bethlem Hospital in February of that year. The content of his medical notes suggests that the state of mind that brought him to hospital was entirely unrelated to his experiences of 1910-1913. Indeed, they report that “on the whole he felt better during this time”. In consideration of financial suppport given by the Captain Scott Memorial Fund, Bethlem waived its usual twelve-month limit on residence. Lillie was discharged recovered in January 1921, and commenced lecturing at Cambridge, but relapsed and was admitted to Buckinghamshire Mental Hospital in October of that year, before returning to Bethlem a month afterward. This time his equilibrium did not return, and in April 1924 he was transferred to Salisbury’s Old Manor Hospital. According to Tom Griffiths, Lillie “did not recover his sanity”1; but, pace Griffiths, he did not lose it in the Antarctic.

1 Tom Griffiths, ‘Madcap icecaps’, The Age, May 12, 2007.

Lillie

Used with permission

In the Spotlight: Introduction

People often ask us, ‘Have there ever been any famous patients (or, any notorious patients) at Bethlem or the Maudsley?’ It is a question we struggle to know how best to answer. Certainly mental distress is no respecter of persons, so over the years one would expect a small percentage of hospital admissions to have been of those in the public eye for one reason or another. (Brian Moody’s photographic 1 in 4 exhibition is a near-contemporary reminder of this.) But the question seems to reflect an intrusive obsession with celebrity, not to mention a disregard for privacy, which we find ourselves reluctant to affirm or encourage. It should go without saying that the medical confidentiality of those admitted within living memory is inviolable.

That said, the Archives & Museum is in a unique position by virtue of its collections to record the lives and experience and celebrate the achievements of people who suffer, or have suffered, mental health problems. One small way we have sought to do this is by highlighting an artwork from our reserve collections in our monthly In the Frame post. This year we will add a new series of posts to this blog about people of previous generations who spent time as Bethlem or Maudsley Hospital patients, but whose lives became defined, at least in the minds of others, by their achievements rather than by that experience. A few of those we feature will be familiar (if not actually household) names. All deserve to be better known.

We will restrict ourselves to those admitted to Bethlem or the Maudsley between (say) 1840 and 1939, as earlier patients of note are featured under the ‘patients’ tab in Visiting Bethlem. For the purpose of this series of posts, we will also exclude artists whose work is represented in our collections here at the Archives & Museum – with one exception, which will be explained in due course.