A A A

Legacy in Conversation: Scrapbooks, Albums and Diaries in the 18th century

By Hannah L Wills, on 7 March 2017

By Hannah Wills

 

Hannah’s lunch hour talk, ‘Legacy in Conversation: Scrapbooks, Albums and Diaries in the 18th century’, will take place on Tuesday 14 March, 1-2pm, in the UCL Art Museum

 

 
How did people organise their notes and thoughts in the eighteenth century? This question is something that my research aims to get to grips with as I explore the diary and manuscript notebooks of Charles Blagden (1748-1820), an eighteenth-century natural philosopher, and secretary to the major scientific institution, the Royal Society. Whilst working on this strand of my research, which focuses on early modern information storage, retrieval and management, I’ve come across several synergies with the Art Museum’s current exhibition, entitled Legacy: Richard Cooper Jnr and the Artist’s Album.  

Blagden’s diary, vol 4, 3 Apr. 1802, Royal Society. Photo credit: Royal Society

Blagden’s diary, vol 4, 3 Apr. 1802, Royal Society. Photo credit: Royal Society

 

Legacy presents, for the first time, a number of albums produced by Richard Cooper Jnr, a little known eighteenth-century artist and innovative printmaker. As this exhibition shows, Cooper used his albums as repositories for sketches of artworks produced by other artists, as well as his own ideas and compositions. This use of the artist’s album closely mirrors another form of notebook popular in the eighteenth century, known as the ‘commonplace book’. These notebooks, whose origins can be traced back to the Renaissance, served as a kind of textual scrapbook, as a repository for favourite passages copied from other texts, as well as a note-taker’s own thoughts and anecdotes. Such notebooks enabled individuals to retrieve information, and were often used to help the note-taker pen their own prose compositions, including poems and essays.[i]

 

Album

One of Richard Cooper Jnr’s albums on display in the exhibition, UCL Art Museum. Photo credit: UCL Art Museum.

 

Next week, I’ll be giving a lunch hour talk at the Art Museum, exploring some of the connections between the albums of Richard Cooper Jnr and the diaries and commonplace book of Charles Blagden. Described as ‘visual diaries’, I’ll explore how Cooper’s albums are similar to Blagden’s own diary, as devices for storing important ideas, memories and information. Exploring both the text and images found within Blagden’s commonplace book, I’ll take at look at how these notebooks functioned as a kind of textual analogue to the artist’s album, and how albums, diaries and notebooks contribute to notions of ‘legacy’.

 

 

[i] Mark Towsey, Reading the Scottish Enlightenment: Books and Their Readers in Provincial Scotland, 1750-1820 (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2010), 182.

Exploring Perception: Time-based Media at the UCL Art Museum

By Lisa Plotkin, on 10 February 2014

 ProfileBy Felicity Winkley

Time-Based Media brings together ten multimedia works which depend on technology and can therefore change meaningfully in response to time, including, but not limited to, video, experimental film and audio. All the works in the exhibition are linked in their aim to create a dialogue between viewer and object; to meaningfully provoke an engaging experience. At work under the surface of this engagement is perception, an environmental involvement in which we, the experiencers, receive stimuli to which not only our senses respond, but also our cognitive process. The pieces collected here are not solely visual or static. In this respect they challenge both what we expect to encounter in the rather traditional and certainly serene surroundings of the UCL Art Museum, and moreover what we might expect to experience when we ‘look at art’.

In my research into the perception of landscape, I subscribe to the definition put forward by Allport in his work on the subject some years ago. For him, perception:

‘has something to do with our awareness of the objects or conditions about us. It is dependent to a large extent upon the impressions these objects make upon our senses. It is the way things look to us, or the way they sound, feel, taste, or smell. But perception also involves, to some degree, an understanding awareness, a “meaning” or a “recognition” of these objects’ (1955, 14).

This definition advocates – as do I – the cognitive (as opposed to behaviourist, or gestalt) approach to perception, whereby we understand that the perceptive process is not limited solely to a stimuli-response pattern of observable behaviours, but ‘is influenced by many cultural, experience-based and individual factors that underlie interpretation’ (Campos et al. 2012, 760). It is these factors, mediated by the perceiver’s cognitive and emotional responses, that are so valuable for my personal research into attitudes to landscape preferences, but also to a consideration of how viewers might respond to some of the works curated in Time-based Media.

Take The Printer’s Symphony (2013), a collaborative work by Dana Ariel, Julia McKinlay, Eleanor Morgan and Georgina Tate. A beautiful concertina-fold of card stretches along the length of the case, bringing together prints from the four artists, demonstrating a number of processes, mounted and detailed with added embossings. So far, so good – we as gallery visitors are used to seeing pristine works, safely displayed in cases. However, unusually the object is also accompanied by four minutes of audio, emanating from a hidden speaker, composed of a pastiche of recorded sounds from the print-maker’s studio. At first, our senses are fooled – the everyday noises sound like someone working outside, or upstairs, because memory and therefore knowledge has conditioned us to interpret this as the most likely cause amongst the perceived milieu. On paying closer attention, though, the sound quickly changes and it is soon easy to be drawn in to the soundscape of filing, spraying, rinsing and rolling – an evocative soundtrack of making, which is strangely difficult to connect to the perfect artwork in the case. This is exactly what the artists were hoping to capture – a method of bringing the process of making into the gallery, of bridging the gap between the Slade School of Fine Art and the UCL Art Museum. Thanks to perception, upon listening whilst also observing the work, we can now imagine what the studio environment is like – using the sounds as a trigger to remembered encounters, we can ‘see’ in our mind’s eye how it might appear, or smell the scent of the materials, the feel of a tool-handle in the hand.

In this engagement with The Printer’s Symphony, we can see clearly how memory serves as an essential factor of perception; through memory, we can achieve knowledge, and consequently inform our interpretation of later perceived environments – I remember what workshops are like, and therefore the sounds I encounter in the artwork recall this memory to my mind as I experience it. This type of memory is known as embodied: in which the immersive quality of the experience fully engage the senses to evoke memories beyond those that can be summoned solely by looking at a photograph, for example (Rishbeth and Powell 2013). Viveka Marksio’s work Embodied/Disembodied (v.1) taps into this embodiment, by using computer-generated imagery to take the viewer on a journey through the interior spaces of the Slade School as they are being slowly flooded. The piece aims to ‘recreate the sensations of the body in a threatening and claustrophobic physical space’, and the video is helped to achieve this by the carefully constructed soundtrack which comprises a resonant series of bass notes, with sporadic industrial echoes. Unlike The Printer’s Symphony, whose accompanying audio is ambient in the gallery, Embodied/Disembodied (v.1) (like other works in Time-Based Media) requires the viewer to wear headphones; whilst this is not unusual perhaps, in this instance it is worth noting the effect of the headphones in contributing to the sense of enclosure and threat evoked by the piece. The noise-canceling qualities, along with the sensation of pressure on the head, all add to the perceptive blend of the engagement.

 i am unique and so is everyone else , 2012 video duration: 15 seconds (loop)

Nicolas Feldmeyer
I am unique and so is everyone else , 2012
video duration: 15 seconds (loop)

In I am unique and so is everybody else (2012), Nicholas Feldmeyer achieves a similar effect using solely video. This 15-second looped video collage layers footage of the natural movement of tree branches in the wind with a digital pattern of black dots to create a random movement which is at once hypnotic and contemplative. In contrast to The Printer’s Symphony or Embodied/Disembodied (v.1) the work has no soundtrack, but its immersive simplicity makes it easy for the viewer to call up the sensations that would accompany an encounter with wind in the branches – the sound of it whipping through the trees, the feel of the air on the skin. Again, our perception is informed by memory – we know what this would feel like. And yet visually the beholder is confused by the work; the natural pattern of the branches has been overlaid by a subtle digital intervention, the scene is not quite as it first appeared.

Similarly, Feldmeyer challenges our expectations with My people, humble people (2012), in which small digital ellipses have been overlaid on raindrops as they fall into a puddle. In both pieces, the subtlety of the overlays confuses our perception and encourages close scrutiny – are we looking at the natural phenomena or the digitally imposed details? Where does one stop and the other begin? In terms of our exploration of perception, the effect is pertinent. Although in our daily life perceptual modalities like hearing, touch, smell and taste are extremely important in negotiating our relationship with the outside world, nevertheless, most of the perceptive encounters we have with the environment are conducted visually (Ballesteros 1994). And yet is this the most important? Should we be more cautious in prioritising it over our other senses? Time-Based Media offers the opportunity to question the perceptive process, and encourages us to scrutinise our responses to what we see and how we orientate ourselves to it.

Nicolas Feldmeyer  My people, humble people,  2012 video duration: 1:05 minutes (loop)

Nicolas Feldmeyer
My people, humble people, 2012
video duration: 1:05 minutes (loop)

Time-Based Media is on at the UCL Art Museum until 28 March 2014

 

 

Allport, F. H. (1955) Theories of Perception and the Concept of Structure New York: Wiley

 

Ballesteros, S. (1994) Cognitive Approaches to Human Perception: Introduction, in: Ballesteros, S. (Ed.) Cognitive Approaches to Human Perception New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers

 

Campos, M., Velazques, A., Verdinelli, G. B., Priego-Santander, A. G., McCall, M. K. and Boada, M. (2012) Rural People’s Knowledge and Perception of Landscape: A Case Study from the Mexican Pacific Coast Society and Natural Resources: An International Journal 25 (8) pp. 759-774

 

Rishbeth, C. and Powell, M. (2013) Place Attachment and Memory: Landscapes of Belonging as Experiences Post-Migration Landscape Research 38 (2) pp. 160-178

 

 

 

Art in History: A Representation of Reality or Political Tool?

By Gemma Angel, on 5 November 2012

by Sarah Chaney

 

 

 

 

 

During the recent One Day in the City exhibition in the Art Museum, I had an interesting conversation with a couple of visitors who had popped in during the Marxism 2012 conference held elsewhere onsite. The exhibition took a variety of images depicting certain aspects of London over time, often raising questions about the relationship between representation and reality: for example, an etching showing the city as if viewed from a non-existent hill. Prior to aeroplanes, helicopters and even hot air balloons, the artist could not possibly have seen the city from such an angle. Yet they imagined what such a view might have looked like, and faithfully drew their idea of the reality.

Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677) – London Panorama. UCL Art Museum.

By situating such images in the past, we often assume that we are seeing uncomplicated depictions of reality: what life was really like in London a hundred, two hundred, or three hundred years ago. Yet representations of London life are just that: representative of a particular individual – and, most often, social or political – point of view. When we look at historical prints as objects, stripped of their context – and even their creators – we run the risk of misinterpreting them altogether.

“Do you think?” one of the visitors mentioned above asked, “that time often causes us to dilute, or even lose altogether, the political message of historical images?” This conversation encouraged all of us to view the exhibition in a slightly different manner, looking beyond what we could recognise of “our” London (buildings, geographical landmarks or institutions) to see London as a place teeming with people who were, genuinely, historical actors: people who held diverse beliefs, opinions and ideas just as we do.

In particular, we discussed some of the etchings by William Hogarth displayed in the exhibition. It is well known today, of course, that Hogarth (1697-1764) was a satirist and social critic. His works often run in a series, charting the course of particular ways of life that he wished to critique: on display in the museum was Industry and Idleness: other examples included Marriage à la Mode and A Rake’s Progress. Despite acknowledging the critical nature of Hogarth’s work, and the strong use of symbolism within his images, scenes of London life are nonetheless often assumed to be just that: a clear representation of what life was actually like in the city during Hogarth’s life. Nowhere does this occur more frequently than in relation to the final scene in A Rake’s Progress, in which Tom Rakewell’s profligate life has seen him admitted to the “madhouse”: the Bethlem Royal Hospital (or Bedlam, as it was commonly known).

Hogarth: A Rake’s Progress (1735). Wellcome Library, London.

Hogarth’s image of “Bedlam” is often used in histories as an illustration of the eighteenth-century asylum, suggesting that various elements of the work indicate what the asylum was “really” like at the time. In particular, the well-dressed lady visitors are used to highlight the existence of public visiting in this period, a regular practice until 1770. Like most hospitals in this period, Bethlem was a charitable institution and thus was maintained by donations, which were requested from all visitors. Yet Hogarth’s image is a satire: while Rakewell’s fellow patients can be viewed in relation to diagnoses of the day (such as religious delusion, love melancholy and delusions of grandeur), they can equally be seen to satirise the state of contemporary institutions – the Church, the monarchy, and scientific endeavour. By viewing Hogarth’s image merely as a representation of the Hospital itself, we risk missing the fact that he also has plenty to say about society outside the Hospital. As in drama, literature and poetry, representations of Bethlem in art frequently aim to hold a mirror up to society, rather than to represent the realities of mental health experience and treatment.

Art and Psychiatry: Henry Scott Tuke

By Gemma Angel, on 15 October 2012

by Sarah Chaney

 

 

 

 

Henry Scott Tuke was a student at the Slade School of Fine Art in the 1870s, winning a three-year-scholarship in 1877: sadly, this was twenty years too early for his prize-winning work to have made it into the UCL Art Museum. The Tuke family had a number of connections with UCL, however: Henry’s elder brother was a medical student at University College Hospital.

Although biographies of the Newlyn painter often mention his doctor father, little is made of this connection – Henry remains a figure of interest for art and cultural historians, and his father for historians of medicine. Yet parallels between art and psychiatry were often emphasised in the late nineteenth century. Daniel Hack Tuke, Henry’s father, was a governor at Bethlem Royal Hospital from the 1870s until his death in 1897, and art was an important topic at the asylum, for patients and staff alike. Daniel’s obituary in the Hospital Magazine, Under the Dome, concentrated on his well-known son, noting that:

The early death of his eldest son, who was a brilliant student of University College Hospital, was a painful blow to Dr. Tuke, but no doubt he found some amount of solace under this loss in the successful career as a painter of his other son, Mr. H.S. Tuke. The latter has been a foremost member of the Newlyn School, and like most of his brother artists of that school of painters, has lived a good deal on his boat on the coast of Cornwall, and, we remember, that about three seasons since, Dr. Tuke, upon his first visit to the Hospital, after his autumn holiday, said to the present writer that he had much enjoyed it, having in good part spent it with his son upon the latter’s studio-boat. [1]

From this remark, it would seem that Henry and his father were close. It may be interesting to pay closer attention to the fact that Henry Scott Tuke is best remembered today for his Impressionist style paintings of male nudes, becoming a cult figure in gay cultural circles. Was this connection also made in his life? Certainly, homosexuality (or ‘sexual inversion’ as it was more commonly known at this time) was a topic of interest for many psychiatrists, among whom Daniel Hack Tuke was extremely prominent. In Austria, for example, forensic psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing devoted much of his magnum opus, Psychopathia Sexualis (first published in 1886) to the topic, later becoming a fervent opponent of Paragraph 26, which outlawed homosexual acts in German and Austrian law.

English sexologist, Havelock Ellis, meanwhile, had been mentored by Hack Tuke during his own days as a medical student. In the early 1890s Ellis and writer (and self-confessed ‘invert’) John Addington Symonds corresponded about a book they wished to write together on the topic. Ellis complained about the lack of interest from his medical colleagues, in particular that Daniel Hack Tuke himself “wrap[ped] a wet blanket around it [the topic], with averted eyes”. Symonds had similarly been annoyed in a letter to his friend, Edmund Gosse, that when he tried to ‘draw’ Tuke on the topic of ‘sexual inversion’ he “found that he preferred to discourse on ‘hypnotism’.”[2]

Symonds and Gosse were both certain of the ‘character’ of Henry Scott Tuke’s art (i.e. homosexual). Perhaps this was also why Symonds felt that Daniel would be a natural ally, in addition to the doctor being an old friend of his father’s. In 1891, he sent the psychiatrist his philosophical text on homosexuality, A Problem in Modern Ethics, but informed Havelock Ellis that Tuke “shrinks from entertaining the question in any practical way.”[3] A year later, Symonds was made ‘angry’ by Daniel’s attitude, seeing it as evidence of the refusal of English Medical Psychologists to discuss the topic at all. Tuke, Symonds claimed, was “unscientifically prejudiced to the last degree.”[4] Today, we may well feel that Symonds’ anger was justified, and that Daniel Hack Tuke should have lent his well-known name to a project, in support of his son. Or we may feel that the “sentimental” psychiatrist (as his colleagues described him) was the very worst person for Symonds and Ellis to approach, and that the topic of sexual inversion might, to him, have appeared personally painful. He may have worried that his involvement might reflect badly on his son’s career or, alternatively, he might not have regarded the topic as falling into the field of pathology at all. We can conclude, however, that Ellis and Symonds felt that Daniel Hack Tuke’s personal connections should encourage a commitment to exploring homosexuality both medically and politically, and that the quiet, serious doctor did not.

He did, however, keenly support his son’s career, attending exhibitions at the Royal Academy of Art – and, perhaps, at the Slade before that. While there is no work by Henry Scott Tuke himself in the UCL Collection, the Art Museum includes work by his teachers. The artist studied under Sir Edward Poynter, depicted here in a portrait by Alphonse Legros, another of Henry’s teachers.

Sir Edward Poynter by Alphonse Legros (1837 – 1911) from the UCL Art Museum

 



[1] Anon. “Daniel Hack Tuke, M.D., F.R.C.P., LL.D.” Under the Dome, vol. 4, no. 14 (June 1895)

[2] Havelock Ellis, John Addington Symonds, and Ivan Crozier, Sexual Inversion: A Critical Edition, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) , p. 39; Symonds to Gosse, 15 Nov 1890 in John Addington Symonds, The Letters of John Addington Symonds: Volume III 1885-1893, eds. Herbert M. Schueller and Robert L. Peters, ed.(Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1969) , p. 518

[3] Symonds to Ellis, July 1891, Symonds, John Addington, 1969, p. 587

[4] Symonds to Ellis, July 7 1892, Symonds, John Addington, 1969, p. 710

Japanese Performing Monkeys: Apes in Art & Culture

By Gemma Angel, on 8 October 2012

Suzanne Harvey #2by Suzanne Harvey

 

 

 

 

 

Apes in Art

For anyone interested in images of primates in the visual arts, Solly Zuckerman’s seminal book The Ape in Myth and Art is a must-read. Hidden in the back pages amidst the postscript is Ohara Koson’s print, Trained Monkey Looking at an Insect, somewhat inaccurately described as a “Chinese water colour of a monkey sniffing a flower, unknown artist.”  It is in fact a woodblock print of a trained Japanese macaque (a species better known for its preference for bathing in hot springs) looking at a bee, and can be viewed at the UCL Art Museum.  Koson is one of the best known artists of the Japanese Shin Hanga or ‘new prints’ movement, and 257 of his prints are listed by the Hanga Gallery. But what of the ape subject who appears in this portrait?

Whilst the pink face is natural, the pink waistcoat certainly is not. As he is described as trained, it seems likely that Koson’s monkey is part of the tradition of Sarumawashi, or monkey dancing, which has been a Japanese tradition for over a thousand years. The concept is so ingrained in society that there exists a single noun, 猿回し, meaning ‘showman who trains performing monkeys’.

Apes in Museums

Whilst these performing monkeys were trained to mimic human behaviours on stage, Koson’s print depicts a tethered, costumed animal following its urge to be inquisitive – a natural, rather than trained, ‘human’ quality. Do we need to train monkeys to demonstrate human-like traits? As various primate species have been shown to use such complex behaviours as deceit and manipulation, as well as the ability to learn, play and communicate, I would say no. Yet, when exploring the representations of primates in UCL museums and collections, anthropomorphism arises as a clear theme. There are of course many examples of primate specimens, including baboons and macaques, mounted to reflect their natural behaviour in the Grant Museum of Zoology, but the presence of primates in UCL museums isn’t limited to the zoological collections. As well as the Art Museum’s trained macaque, at the Petrie Museum, there are figurines of baboons playing harps, drinking beer and even performing gymnastics.

From images of performing monkeys, to figurines depicting physical feats monkeys could never achieve, each museum contains objects invaluable to researchers interested in social attitudes towards primates. These objects provoke unexpected and interesting questions: for instance, why might Ancient Egyptians have decorated their homes with beer-drinking baboons? Look out for my next post to find out why…

 

Art Not Words: Female Figure Standing, 1913

By Gemma Angel, on 13 August 2012

Lisa Plotkinby Lisa Plotkin

 

 

 

 

 

1913 was an interesting year for British women. Militant suffragette violence had reached an all-time high, with dozens of women sent to prison each week in the name of female suffrage. The deeds of the suffragettes became more and more outrageous as time went on, with many smashing windows, setting fires, attacking members of parliament, and just generally causing havoc by doing things that women simply were not supposed to do. Under their militant slogan “deeds not words!” thousands of women joined the cause.

By 1913 women were doing and not just saying. They may not have had political representation, but they were making political news. They were heavily involved in local politics; they were nurses in larger numbers and doctors in fewer; they were teachers and factory workers; reformers at home and missionaries abroad. In short, they were as diverse in occupation then as women are now. And they were also artists.

Thia was a fact that UCL’s Art Museum left me no doubt of during their most recent exhibition, in which work from the affiliated Slade School of Art was showcased. Founded in 1871, the Slade School followed UCL’s proud tradition of gender equality and admitted men and women on equal footing, seven years before the University of London allowed women to take examinations.

In 1913 women’s output was limited, constrained by legislative factors and social mores. But in 1913 their artistic output from the Slade was nothing short of astonishing, both in quantity and quality. The featured artists in the recent UCL Art Museum exhibition were tasked with taking historical pieces from the UCL collections, and producing works that somehow comments or speaks to the earlier works.

The two easels grabbed my eye immediately – in fact for me they were really central to the whole exhibition. As you can see from the image below – the piece (by current Slade student Laura Kuch) features two almost completely identical paintings of the backs of nude women. Kuch positioned them as though they were facing back-to-back – their double always invisible – but standing just behind them.

Laura Kuch, Dopplegängers, 2012. Two wooden easels, Dora Carrington, Female Figure Standing, 1913 (framed), Fanny J Fletcher, Female Figure Standing, 1913. © Laura Kuch. Installation shot photographed by Mary Hinkley, UCL Media Services.


But Kuch herself was not the painter of these two works; she discovered them tucked away in UCL storage. This surprised Kuch. Why were there two identical paintings, both labeled “Female Figure Standing, 1913” and why were they attributed to two different artists?

It was later discovered that the two artists, both women students at the Slade in 1913, painted this female figure standing as part of a competition. These two paintings were the first and second place winners. As an historian of Victorian and Edwardian Britain, these two female nudes speak to me. Women artists painted this woman 99 years ago. They competed in a university competition 99 years ago. A woman took off her clothes for a group of artists 99 years ago. Those are all statements about the status of women 99 years ago. It might seem divorced from the larger Woman Question of the time, but it wasn’t.

The great, late poet author Adrienne Rich once wrote: “We are not the Woman Question asked by somebody else; we are the women who ask the questions.”[1] The women artists of the Slade from the 1870s until today posed their questions and stated their answers, through art. Not deeds, not words, but art. And now almost one hundred years later we still get to enjoy it.


References:

[1] Adrienne Rich, “Notes Towards a Politics of Location” in in Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose, 1979–1985 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1986).

A Room With A View? Asylum Art in the 19th Century

By Gemma Angel, on 6 August 2012

by Sarah Chaney

 

“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.