Posts Tagged 'service user art'

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


Hollow Space and Outgrowth: extended chance to see

The Bethlem Gallery’s Hollow Space and Outgrowth exhibition formally closes to visitors today, and the Gallery won’t be open in its regular hours until 29 August. However, the Archives & Museum will be open as normal throughout the summer, from 9.30am to 4.30pm Mondays to Fridays and also from 11.00am to 5.00pm on Saturday 4 August and Saturday 1 September 2012. For the next month (until Tuesday 13 August), Archives & Museum staff would be willing to take any visitors who ask to see Hollow Space and Outgrowth over to the Gallery for the purpose – subject to their availability and other commitments, of course. In the meantime, we are delighted to publish the comments of our guest blogger Susan Slater-Tanner, Professor of Art History at the State University of New York, Orange, on the exhibition.

“What I found fascinating about Hollow Space and Outgrowth at the Bethlem Gallery exhibition was that the artists did not make ‘literal’ visual responses to the artefacts and objects; rather they took an emotive approach responding to and reflecting personally on incidents, experiences and events of their own lives — without agenda or guile. For example, the “prevention of self abuse; anti masturbation device” literally as an object evokes serious ethical issues of human restraint and control. One even might consider bondage connotations. The artistic response Collar of Shame, an upright anthropomorphized dog, was so unexpected, so lyric, so funny yet not without deep thought, consideration and serendipitous artistic response.

“For me, the exhibition and its curatorial theme is not about finding similar shaped objects, or like-minded colours and textures — it is about how we all relate to and cope with our world, our challenges, our fears and our hopes.”

Hollow Space exhibition
Part of the exhibition. The dog is in the bottom right corner of the left-hand case. The anti masturbation device is above it.

Unknown, and Unknowable? Bethlem Gallery Exhibition opens 27 July

The Bethlem Gallery invites you to an exhibition curated by staff at Bethlem’s Archives & Museum, opening on Wednesday 27th July 2011. Here is displayed a selection of works by patients of past generations whose names and creative intentions are lost to posterity, and whose artistic visions survive only in their output. The Exhibition has already received interest online, with reports in Unfolded Magazine and Cassone Art.

The exhibition bears haunting witness to that loss:

  • to faces lost in a crowd
  • to faces lost in thought, or bereft of it
  • to faces impervious to, or turned away from, our interrogating gaze
  • to figures held captive to, or struggling to surmount, nameless opposition.

Can their stories ever be told, or will they even be heeded?

Like patient data in epidemiological research or subjects in restricted legal proceedings, these artists remain unknown, but the questions their works raise are insistent. Is anonymity to be craved, or rather recognition? When we have lost our names, have we lost everything?

The name of the artist, the title of the work, the year in which it was created. That’s all most galleries put on their captions accompanying artworks on display. Maybe a brief description of the subject of the painting. Everything else is just interpretation, and doesn’t belong on a label, does it? But what if the names of the artists and artworks were unknown? What if there was nothing to put on the labels? What if all we were left with was interpretation?

‘Developing Unknown, and Unknowable? has been a fascinating experience,’ says one of the exhibition’s curators. ‘The absence of the kind of contextual information usually available – artists’ names, titles of artworks, dates – is an invitation to reflect on the ways of seeing the world offered to us by these rarely shown works. Even if we knew the artists responsible for them, they would still be extraordinarily evocative. As it is, they are utterly compelling.’

The exhibition will run from its opening on 27th July to 19th August 2011, and will include a Saturday opening on 6th August (which will feature, at 12 noon on that day, a brief talk) as well as the normal Wednesday-Friday opening hours. Visitors to the Gallery are also encouraged to explore the Archives & Museum.

 LDBTH321-Figures in Rocky Landscape b

In the Frame for March 2011

A month or so ago we featured a reflection written by one of our volunteers about her work here at the Archives & Museum. Now another of our volunteers has put pen to paper, this time to write one in our regular In the Frame series of posts. He writes:

‘To my mind The Struggle (1963) by Arthur Kenneth Ward actually shows several struggles. It is a watercolour of a man walking up a path of a prison by the edge of a cliff, with a distant city ahead of him. The most obvious struggle portrayed in the painting is of the man himself. He is wearing what looks to me to be a prisoner’s uniform. A large shard of glass is protruding from his back. To the viewer, it looks as though the man has broken a window in order to escape his prison, but has been impaled by a shard falling from the top left of picture. To me the shard represents how difficult his escape is going to be. Will he ever be able to be truly free? However, the artist himself, in writing of this painting, related it his own struggle after leaving prison to adjust to life in the outside world, with the only available path seeming to lead back to prison.

‘I see other struggles in the painting. The sun struggles to shine through the fog. This creates the impression of a dark and lonely place, and of a barrier between the prison and the city in the distance. The faded colours of the distant city make it seem as though it is so far away that the man may never be able to reach it. Indeed, the artist wrote that the bright colours of the prison in the foreground stand for familiarity and the friendships that he had in prison. I myself interpret these colours as the stark realism of life, and the faded background colours as things that cannot be (in this case, freedom). The final struggle depicted in the painting is of the crumbling building itself. Its doomed struggle against time puts it in as much need of regeneration as the prisoner is in need of rehabilitation.’

The Struggle

In the Frame for February 2011

A fortnight or so ago we bid farewell to our part-time registrar, who completed her postgraduate degree in museum studies last year and is now bound for pastures green. We wish her all the best for the future. One of the last tasks we gave her was to choose a painting for this month’s In the Frame. She chose an anonymous work in a sketchbook which we have called The Little Traveller II, and this is what she wrote about it:

“This month I have chosen to highlight a work that is quite mysterious in more ways than one. It is a painting in graphite and watercolour and it is one of several which make up two albums. The first mystery is that nothing is known of the artist, but from the age of the sketchbook and the clothing of the single human figure, it can be speculated that the paintings date from the 1930s or 40s. Other than that the artist’s motivation and intent can only be guessed at.

“The artist has created a magical and fantastical world which we explore through the adventures of a young girl. Early in the sketchbook, she is seen setting out with a knapsack on her back, and with what seems like a sense of optimism; the colours are bright and the environment although always watchful is inviting. Our heroine flies high in a hot air balloon, above swirling clouds that seem to watch as she passes by. But then huge colourful birds surround her and in one unfinished work appear to be attacking her balloon bringing her to the ground. From there her story takes a darker turn as she enters enchanted forests, always watched by the trees and the animals. The little girl is then swept away in a fiercely flowing river and as she sinks under the waters she encounters even more unlikely creatures. Although many of the pictures seem to have sinister undertones, several are also benevolent, such as one in which she is cradled by a large ‘Buddha’ like figure. Unfortunately the artist did not finish the sketchbooks and therefore we do not know how the little girl’s story ends.

“I was attracted to the sketchbooks by the watercolour shown here. It has several universal qualities; the fear of loneliness, abandonment and the unknown. However it also appeals to a childlike innocence, reminiscent of a time when one feared the dark, monsters under the bed and believed in the possibility of the trees coming to life in the depths of the dark forbidding wood. Maybe as adults we still harbour some of those fears? Or perhaps we also yearn for a time when we still believed in magic or fairytales, because however bleak the situation there was always a happily ever after.”


Our Corner of London

Those whose plans to visit the Archives & Museum (to honour their group booking or other appointment) were frustrated by the weather last week may like to know that a thaw is currently in progress, and that we are maintaining our usual opening hours of 9.30am to 4.30pm, Monday to Friday. The Affordable Art Fair continues on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, 11am to 6pm at the Bethlem Gallery – a great place to find a unique Christmas gift. Those who still have Christmas cards to buy and are in striking distance of the Archives & Museum may like to know that we are selling overstocks of our ‘Bethlem Chapel in the snow’ and ‘Christmas Sun’ cards at an extremely reasonable price. (We’re sorry, but it’s too late for us to accept email or telephone orders for these)

A word of warning, however: at the time of writing, side roads and pavements remain icy and extremely hazardous for drivers and pedestrians alike in our corner of London. Do take care, and call ahead if in any doubt.

2008 064

Bethlem Chapel cosseted in snow

In the Frame for December 2010

For December 2010, the Friends Secretary has decided to highlight Marion Patrick’s Sad Child With Yellow Clothing. Personally, I find Patrick’s paintings particularly expressive; many visitors, children and adults, can probably identify with the extreme emotions represented here. The muted colours of the isolated children – even in this, one of the most colourful of her works in our collection, the child’s face is tinged with grey – provide an overwhelming sense of desolation, reminiscent of inner city desolation or the ruined landscapes of war (for the environment is most certainly represented as man-made, rather than natural). Yet the grey backgrounds are also evocative of the school playground, a location in which almost all of us, at some point, can remember a sense of loneliness and loss which, for perhaps just one brief moment in time, seemed to colour the entire world.

What I find especially significant in these paintings, however – and why I’ve chosen this one in particular, with its unusual splash of bright colour – is that the isolation is never entirely complete; the viewer him or herself provides an inkling of hope. For, almost always, the child (or at least one in a group of children) is staring directly out of the painting, catching the eye of the observer. Here, one eye is hidden behind the child’s hair, suggesting caution, a fear of exposure. The other eye, however, is wide and clear, almost appealing. Although, as Patrick herself suggested, the isolation of the individual might be inevitable in life, while somebody is looking at the painting the child will never be truly alone.

Marion Patrick - 'Sad Child with Yellow Clothing'Click on the image to see more of Marion Patrick’s work