First published: Winter 2015
Little is known about the asylum artist(s) known as JJ Beegan, whose drawings made using charred matches on institutional toilet paper, or using stubs of blue pencils on pages torn from The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson, Volume VI, have been recognised in several exhibitions and a book since the 1950s. These works came out of Netherne Hospital in Surrey, UK, where the father of art therapy, Edward Adamson (1911–1996), collected and promoted patients’ artworks.
Graffiti on Lavatory Paper 1 (detail), “JJ Beegan”, undated (c. 1946), match char on three sheets of Izal Medicated Toilet Tissue, 4.5 x 18 ins. / 11.5 x 45 cm
British long-stay mental hospitals were challenging places after World War II, having been starved of staff and resources. Physical treatment such as electric convulsive therapy, insulin coma therapy and brain operations – the infamous lobotomy – were widely used. Antipsychotic medication only became available in the early 1950s. However, a few asylums had started unlocking some of their doors in the late 1930s, known as the “open-door movement”, and progressive social, creative and occupational interventions were emerging.
In the 1920s and 1930s, particularly in the USA, Henry Cotton’s “theory of sepsis”, that schizophrenia and other serious mental illnesses were caused by infection hidden in the body, led to people having at least their teeth removed, progressing to major surgery removing the appendix, spleen, large bowel, testicles or ovaries for some. Death rates from these operations were high, and though the practice fell into disrepute in the late 1930s, residents at Netherne when Adamson started leading art sessions in 1946 might have undergone these procedures earlier in their decades-long admissions. Many patients, their teeth removed, would have shared “ward teeth”.
This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #88