Posts Tagged 'James Tilly Matthews'

The Bedlam Bones: Excavation, History and Myth

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that we’ve long been pointing out the holes in stories claiming the skeletons unearthed at Bishopsgate as part of the Crossrail project were former patients of the Hospital. We even drew attention to the efforts of turn-of-the-twentieth-century chaplain, Edward Geoffrey O’Donoghue, to trace any references to the first Bethlem Hospital in local parish registers, which included the surprising revelation that “old Bedlam” (as he put it) “was not without its amusements, for on July 25th 1618, the burial is recorded of William Marshall, who died suddenly in the Bowling Alley in Bedlam.”1

Yet the ‘Bedlam Bones’ tag seems to have caught the attention of the media, and is now apparently well nigh unshakeable. This coming Saturday, however, visitors to the Museum will be able to hear the Bethlem Archivist explain the real history of the “New Churchyard by Bethlem”. The free talk starts at 2pm, and visitors will also be able to see a new exhibition in the space: Back From Holiday. In the last few years, many of our paintings have been out on loan around the world. This display features some of these temporary absentees, now back home in Beckenham, including work by Vaslav Nijinsky, Jonathan Martin, Richard Dadd and Louis Wain.

Other events coming up will focus on some of the works recently returned to the Museum. On 2 November, a free talk on James Tilly Matthews explores his sketch of the “Air Loom Gang” that he believed were persecuting him, while December’s Saturday talk (on 7 December) will focus on Nijinsky, whose drawing A Mask, is on display. For full details of upcoming events, visit our website: or join the mailing list.

 photo Masksmallc1919b_zpsa8fbd3a9.jpg

1 Under the Dome, vol. 3 no. 11 (30 September 1894), pp. 107-108.


Curatorial Conversations XIV

The last essay included in Catherine Coleborne and Dolly MacKinnon’s volume Exhibiting Madness in Museums (our ‘conversation partner’ on this thread over the past year or so) is written by Fiona Parrott and begins: “Studies of psychiatric collecting have tended to focus on the material and visual traces of institutional environments of the past, rather than privileging the traces and presence of patients inside these institutions”.1 On a casual reading, this looks like a criticism, an accusation of bias either on the part of the psychiatric collections or those that have studied them . Yet there is a perfectly innocuous explanation for this tendency. When patients leave hospital – any hospital – they generally take their property with them, and their collections stay private as a consequence. In this regard the exhibition The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic is the exception that proves the rule. (Interestingly, Fiona Parrott’s essay describes the reluctance of today’s medium secure unit residents to decorate their rooms with possessions or even put posters on the walls, saying things like “I don’t want to make it look like I’m here for a long-time”.2) As a result, psychiatric collections, artefactual or archival, tend to consist largely of institutional records, which rarely contain unmediated accounts of the attitudes of patients, or of the general public, towards mental healthcare.

At first glance, the collections here at Bethlem are of this institutional nature. Indeed, the Archives & Museum is appointed as a place of deposit for the public records of the NHS Foundation Trust of which it is a part and its antecedents. Yet a little digging shows that the perspectives of patients are never far from the surface, even in the unlikeliest of places. Amongst the building records for the third hospital at St George’s Fields, for example, lie a set of plans and descriptions by the patient James Tilly Matthews, “probably for the first time ever, designs by a lunatic for a lunatic asylum, conceived not from the perspective of the doctors who will manage it but [from that of] the patients who will live in it”, according to Matthews’ biographer.3 There are, of course, more obvious places in our to look in our collections for patient perspectives. This blog’s In the Frame thread is an ongoing reminder of the breadth of our holdings of service user art.

Bethlem’s Victorian medical records open yet another window onto first-hand experiences at the Hospital. Contained in large casebooks, the majority of the record is written at one remove from the patients by Bethlem doctors. However, included in these books from time to time are letters from patients (and sometimes their relatives) to the Hospital, written during or after their stay. A wide range of modes of negotiation is represented here – complaint, threat, entreaty, gratitude. This is a valuable primary source for the patient side of the doctor-patient encounter, one which we hope to utilise in displays planned for our new museum. Though the curatorial conversations that are preparatory to our relocation are continuing, we have decided to close this particular thread of our blog, if only to make way for the discussion of other topics. Research into patients’ letters has already prompted more than one blog post, and we trust that it will prove a rich seam from which we can draw for future posts.

1 F.R. Parrott, The Material and Visual Culture of Patients in a Contemporary Psychiatric Secure Unit’, in Catherine Coleborne and Dolly MacKinnon, Exhibiting Madness in Museums: Remembering Psychiatry through Collections and Display (Routledge, 2011), page 178.

2 ibid., page 181-183.

3 Mike Jay, The Influencing Machine: James Tilly Matthews and the Air Loom (Strange Attractor Press, 2012), p. 186.


A glimpse inside a medium secure unit bedroom

The Ghost in the Machine?

The programme for the forthcoming Society for the Social History of Medicine annual conference has recently been released. Held at the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary, University of London from 10-12 September 2012, the conference will cover diverse perspectives on Emotions, Health and Wellbeing, from the Middle Ages to the present day, with keynote speeches by Joanna Bourke, Mark Jackson, and William Reddy.

We at the Archives and Museum were particularly struck by the title of one of the panels – Affect:  The Ghost in the Machine? – as we just happen to have loaned a work to an exhibition that has just opened in New York with a very similar title: Ghosts in the Machine.

The term originated in philosopher Gilbert Ryle’s The Concept of Mind, first published in 1949. Ryle objected to a Cartesian dualism that regarded body and mind as separate but complementary necessities: the “ghost” of the mind giving life to the “machine” of the body. The exhibition at New York’s New Museum (18 July – 30 September) surveys the constantly shifting relationship between humans, machines, and art, looking at the ways in which humans have projected anthropomorphic behaviors onto machines that have become progressively more human. Similarly, the conference panel looks at topics including the exorcism of the ghost from the machine in nineteenth century depictions of “poltergeists”, and cybernetic theories of psychopathology in cold war Czechoslovakia, arguing that affect can be used as a prism through which to understand concerns with new technologies, society and the self.

Indeed, the picture loaned by Bethlem Museum to the Ghosts in the Machine exhibition – James Tilly Matthews’ Air Loom sketch – can be interpreted in a similar manner. Drawn by Mathews to illustrate the machine he thought was used to control him and certain political figures in late eighteenth-century Britain, the Air Loom becomes a representation of both the mental and emotional turmoil of one man as well as the political and social unrest of industrial England in the wake of the French Revolution.

Register for the Society for the Social History of Medicine conference here.

Find out more about Ghosts in the Machine here.

Air Loom Image

More Blogged About Than Blogging

We don’t know whether it is literally true that we are more blogged about than blogging – we do blog rather a lot – but from time to time the Archives & Museum does feature on blogs other than this one. Last year it was featured in blog posts written for universities, museums and chess clubs inter alia. We are always pleased about opportunities to reach a wider audience, and would like to thank bloggers, re-posters and re-tweeters alike.

In the recent past, however, the blogger that has featured us most often is the journalist and author Wendy Wallace, whose novel The Painted Bridge is slated for publication later this year. Wendy visited the Archives & Museum last year, and asked the Archivist to choose five items from its collections that were especially worthy of note. Faced with what he knew to be an embarrassment of riches, the Archivist initially demurred, but reminded of the precedent of British Museum’s History of the World project website (on which items held by the Archives & Museum are featured), he at last relented. His choices, as recounted by Wendy, were: the Cibber statues, John Munro’s 1766 medical journal, James Tilly Matthews’ sketch of the Air Loom, Henry Hering’s photographic portraits of Bethlem patients, and the artwork of William Kurelek.

Coincidentally, it is anticipated that the cover of The Painted Bridge will feature artwork strongly reminiscent of a cartoon drawn by a Bethlem patient of the nineteenth century, which was the subject of our recent In the Frame post.

The Air Loom Gang

James Tilly Matthews’ sketch of The Air Loom Gang, c. 1800