Posts Tagged 'photography'

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.


Jane Fradgley Exhibition at the Bethlem Gallery: ‘Folding Space’ opens 13 April

Jane Fradgley’s first solo show runs at the Bethlem Gallery from 13 April until 7 May 2011. This exhibition of photographic works is informed by a deep fascination with the poetic power of folds and textures. The materials, objects and voids in these images reveal and conceal; the apertures and folds invite the viewer to peer beyond the surface towards other forms and vistas, evoking doorways to the unconscious or passages to another world. Having previously pursued a successful career in fashion, life changes and different states of mind led Fradgley to leave this industry and pursue her passion for photography, which she has used as a cathartic tool, a vehicle for expression and a pathway to professional practice.

The artist explains: “This exhibition is a personal poem encompassing some of my feelings. I see objects and colours as metaphors for my life experience. Themes of slits, holes and folds appear in front of me, buzzing with energy, wishing I capture their existence as clues for inquiry to understanding myself.”

“My story began and continues with creases and scars, baggage and bondage. Sadness and solitude make way for rebirth and possibility. Recent research into the Victorian ‘strong clothing’, at the Bethlem Archive; along with my own thoughts around ‘constraints’ has led to the staged sepia images exploring feelings around freedom,” she explained.

‘Strong clothing’ was a rather euphemistic term used to describe certain forms of restraint used in late nineteenth century asylums. While chains, strait-jackets and similar garments were outlawed during the ‘non-restraint’ movement of the 1840s and ’50s, other methods of ‘mechanical restraint’ were permitted by the Commissioners in Lunacy (the government body who inspected and licensed asylums for much of the nineteenth century). “Strong dresses,” as described by Bethlem Superintendent George Savage in 1888, were “made of stout linen or woollen material, and lined throughout with flannel. The limbs are all free to move, but the hands are enclosed in the extremities of the dress, which are padded. … There are no straitwaistcoats, handcuffs, or what may be called true instruments of restraint in Bethlem.” Savage claimed that, by avoiding recourse to the use of sedatives or padded cells for violent or destructive patients, many “were thus really granted liberty by means of the slight restraint put upon them,” such as strong dresses and padded gloves. Others, however, did not agree, and the “principle of non-restraint” remained an ongoing matter of debate.

The exhibition opens on Wednesday 13 April, from 3 – 6pm, and continues until 7th May.

Open: Wednesday – Friday, and Saturday 16th April & 7th May, 11am – 6pm


Pennsylvania Express

Our Archivist has been awarded short-term travel grants from the Francis
Clark Wood Institute for the History of Medicine at The College of
Physicians of Philadelphia
and the
Committee for Professional and International Affairs of the Archives and
Records Association
(UK and
Ireland) to enable research into the photographic representation of
psychiatric patients using the archival resources of the College’s

There should be ample scope for this research in the city of Benjamin
Rush, Thomas Kirkbride and Silas Weir Mitchell; and if only the Dorothea
Dix Library and Museum (opened as a reading room for the female
patients of Pennsylvania’s Harrisburg State Hospital, which Dix and
Kirkbride co-founded in 1851) had not closed in 2006, it would have been
the next stop on our Archivist’s itinerary. As matters stand, hopefully
there will be enough time for a ‘Letter from America’ to be written for
publication on this blog in due course.


Photo courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

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