A Room With A View? Asylum Art in the 19th Century
By Gemma Angel, on 6 August 2012
“A room without pictures is as bad as a room without windows.”
So wrote a newspaper reporter in the Dumfries Herald in 1881, when commenting approvingly on the therapeutic environment of the Crichton Royal Institution and Southern Counties Asylum in Dumfries. Like many other psychiatric hospitals of the period, the galleries of this institution were indeed heavily decorated. Domestic furnishings, pictures, birdcages, plants and drapes were all intended to contribute to a domestic appearance, thought to be both comforting and morally and spiritually uplifting. Indeed, the domestic environment of the asylum was often interpreted as directly curative. The annual reports of many asylum medical superintendents frequently focused on improvements to facilities, with very little information that we might regard as directly medical, such as physical and pharmaceutical intervention.
But what pictures were displayed? Art was often donated by benefactors, meaning there was little choice as to what could actually be shown in the Hospital. Sometimes this might lead to what seem, today, to be surprising displays. Art historian Nicholas Tromans has identified one of the pictures in images of wards at the Bethlem Royal Hospital as an engraving after Landseer’s Otter Hunt. As he points out, today the work is considered too distressing to exhibit, making it seem a picture that we might not imagine to have had a particularly calming or uplifting influence on patients! Another hunting image in Landseer’s work, from the collections of the UCL Art Museum, is shown below. On other occasions, art might be commissioned by the governors of a Hospital. The theatre at the exclusive Normansfield Hospital, set up by John Langdon Down in 1868 for young people with learning disabilities, was partially painted by Marianne North. The walls are also adorned with sets from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore at the Savoy Theatre, presumably bought at auction in the early 1890s.
Edwin Landseer (1802-1873) – His Master’s Dog (UCL Art Museum)
Doctors also often regarded themselves as artists. Medical obituaries of the late nineteenth century regularly highlighted the various creative pursuits of psychiatrists, seen as an important indication of their intellectual status as Victorian gentlemen. Participation in musical and dramatic performances was expected of all asylum staff, including the low-paid ward attendants. Indeed, when one attendant walked out of a band practice session at the Crichton Royal Institution in Dumfries in December 1880, he was told by the superintendent to “choose whether to be obedient, contented and loyal or leave the place”. He selected the latter, and left that same evening. Theo Hyslop, superintendent of Bethlem Royal Hospital from 1898 to 1911, was a keen artist, who exhibited at the Royal Academy and later became a controversial art critic.
Hyslop also seems to have encouraged his patients to paint, and organised a public exhibition of some of this art at Bethlem in 1900. Indeed, in many asylums, some of the art on display was certainly created by patients. Sometimes, artists happened to be resident within the institution. Richard Dadd, for example, created most of his famous works while an inmate of Bethlem and, later, Broadmoor. The un-schooled James Henry Pullen, known as the “genius of Earlswood Asylum”, apparently caught the interest of Edwin Landseer, who sent the young man some of his paintings to copy: another connection between Landseer’s work and the asylum. Other patients may have practised decorative work. In 1883, the superintendent of Bethlem reported that “during the past year we have been engaged in painting artistically one of the male infirmaries, and although it has been somewhat difficult to get a sufficient number of the patients occupied, yet, on the whole the result has been satisfactory, we have had not only kindly assistance from ladies, who have no connection with Bethlem, but we have had several patients among the ladies who have developed quite a taste for the work, and next year I hope to carry this decorative work into several of the other wards.” The following year it was recorded that female patients had been engaged in the painting of a dormitory: such decorative work can be seen in the photograph below.
Dormitory at Bethlem in early twentieth century (Bethlem Royal Hospital Archives & Museum)
As Savage’s words indicate, painting was considered an occupational pursuit: something that would relieve the tedium of asylum life and distract patients from the “morbid introspection” that many doctors blamed for the onset and prolongation of insanity. Imagination and creativity, however, were also considered to be important elements of the human psyche by many asylum practitioners of the period, traits which separated humans from animals and thus aided the “degraded” asylum patient towards mental health. Art in the asylum thus served multiple functions, something that continues to this day through such organisations as the Bethlem Gallery and Museum and the Langdon Down Museum.