Margaret Parkes, ‘Untitled’, 1967. Courtesy of Adamson Collection / Wellcome Library

Margaret Parkes, ‘Untitled’, 1967. Courtesy of Adamson Collection / Wellcome Library

Adamson (1911-1996), a trained artist who had exhibited in Paris and London during the 1930s, arrived at Netherne in 1946 and worked there until his retirement in 1981. He was employed by the progressive psychiatrists Eric Cunningham Dax and Francis Reitmann to run an art research studio for the long-term patients where they could express themselves freely with paint on paper: Adamson’s role was to oversee, rather than to provide technical advice. Almost 700 people produced over 3,000 paintings from 1946 to 1951 in this quasi-experimental studio. The psychiatrists were curious about art as a diagnostic tool, and extensively analysed the work. Their research – published in Reitmann’s 1950 book, Psychotic Art and Dax’s 1953 Experimental Studies in Psychiatric Art – feels very out of date now. The way they interpreted the creativity of those detained in asylums was pathologising; in the art, they saw only symptoms:

“Schizophrenic patients, especially those who are chronic or deteriorated, are much bolder in their use of colour than normal individuals. Besides this, an unpleasing choice of colour is fairly typical of schizophrenic paintings in general [...] One aspect is a preference for colours not often employed by the normal and distasteful to them, such as [a] curious tone of red.” (Reitman, Psychotic Art, 1950) 

When the studio was left to Adamson’s sole control in 1951, he began a subversion of the experiment. Rather than viewing the art people created as expressive of their psychosis, he saw the act of creating as enabling psychological recovery. He was opposed to any interpretation of the visual content of an object, and he would never direct, criticise, praise, or lead a person’s visual expression. The principles Adamson developed in his 35 years at Netherne were foundational for the emergence of Art Therapy and art studios in mental health settings. 

Words by David O'Flynn
Bedlam: the asylum and beyond runs from 15 September 2016 - 15 January 2017 at the Wellcome Collection.

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