First published: Spring 2011
Edward Adamson (1911–1996) encouraged and collected the paintings, drawings and sculptures by people compelled to live in a British long stay mental asylum, Netherne Hospital in Surrey, between 1946 and 1981. The Adamson Collection has 6,000 of these works – of an estimated 100,000 when he retired. He is known as one of the pioneers of Art Therapy in the UK.
Adamson was an artist, and received a degree in Fine Art from Bromley and Beckenham (now Ravensbourne) College. He worked as a graphic artist in the 1930s. During World War II, he served as a ‘non-combatant’ medical orderly. On demobilisation he volunteered to work with Adrian Hill, another pioneer of British Art Therapy, with the Red Cross Picture Library, to bring art as education to those living in tuberculosis sanatoria. As these closed after the introduction of effective treatment, the programme was extended to the asylums.
By the 1940s, the Victorian asylums had become places of isolation and confinement, probably closer to prison than hospital. Netherne, under the direction of the reforming psychiatrists Drs Eric Cunningham Dax, Francis Reitman and Rudolf Freudenberg, was seen as a progressive asylum at the forefront of the waves of reforms and developments which led, over the next 50 years, to the eventual closure of the British asylums.
They also enthusiastically adopted physical treatments, now viewed as barbaric – insulin coma therapy, electroconvulsive therapy and lobotomy – but then seen as optimistic approaches to the treatment of mental disorder.
In his book on his work and the Collection, Art as Healing (1984), Adamson describes that many people who came to his first lecture at Netherne in 1946 had shaved or bandaged heads, and bruised faces and black eyes, following brain surgery.