Art in the Asylum - RAW VISION

Art in the Asylum

First published: Summer 2013

Over nearly two centuries, the visual arts have played a significant part in the development of mental healthcare; a period coinciding with a time of great change in our understanding and treatment of mental illness. We can trace the historical shift from invasive treatments which included psychosurgery, insulin coma therapy and restraint to a more humane regime in which creativity played a key part.



The earliest known use of art as part of a therapeutic regime in asylums was by Dr W. A. F. Browne at the Crichton Royal Institution in Dumfries. Dr Browne was the medical superintendent at Crichton from 1838 to 1857 and believed that his patients should be engaged in mindful occupation. He encouraged them to draw and paint, even employing an art instructor in 1846. His collection of work by “mad artists” is the oldest of its type and has not been exhibited before outside Scotland. One artist incarcerated in Crichton was William Bartholomew (1819–1881), an unmarried engraver diagnosed with mania and melancholia. Doctors noted that his confusion exuded a “wild magnificence” and that his artistic output was “clever but incongruous, absurd and mythical”.

Moving south, the Bethlem Royal Hospital, known as Bedlam, was the location where some of the most celebrated asylum art was created by Richard Dadd, Louis Wain and Charles Sims. All were artists who experienced severe mental illness. Dadd travelled widely before becoming unwell and murdering his father in 1843; thereafter, he was incarcerated in asylums until his death where he continued to produce art prolifically. Wain, “the man who painted cats”, was a celebrated artist who was committed to an asylum after being certified insane in 1924. Sims (1873–1928) was a successful artist known for his open-air scenes and portraiture who also spent time as an official war artist, an experience which traumatised him. In the last two years of his life his artistic style changed dramatically, featuring mystical and spiritual content, before he committed suicide.



Within psychiatry, there has been longstanding interest in the use of art to understand mental experiences. In the 1930s, in an attempt to better comprehend the experience of hallucinations, two psychiatrists from the Maudsley clinic, Eric Guttman and Walter Maclay, conducted a series of mescaline experiments in which artists such as Julian Trevelyan were encouraged to express their hallucinogenic experiences in pictorial form after taking the drug. Maclay also analysed the “kaleidoscope cat” series by Louis Wain. He suggested that the images indicated mental deterioration as the cats became more abstracted, a notion which has been largely disputed since.


This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #79

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