Art in the Asylum: The Adamson Collection at Wellcome Library

‘The Escape’, artist unknown. Image credit: Adamson Collection / Wellcome Library

By Solomon Szekir-Papasavva / 06.13.2017
Engagement Officer (Art & Health)
Wellcome Library

What is the value of art created in the asylum, and who has the right to decide how it’s used? These are some of the questions raised by the Adamson Collection – 5,500 paintings, drawings and sculptures by people (mainly women) who lived in Netherne Psychiatric Hospital in Surrey. The collection is currently being catalogued and made available at Wellcome Library.

Edward Adamson is seen as the father of art therapy in the UK. Between 1946 and 1981, he encouraged and collected art at Netherne. Adamson pioneered a humanistic approach which focused on individuals at a time when treating mental illness often meant controlling symptoms through drugs, electric shock or operations.

In later life Adamson distanced himself from British art therapy and preferred the idea of Outsider Art. Translating the French term ‘art brut’ (‘raw art’, uncontaminated by culture), the English approximation Outsider Art emphasises spontaneous expression by untrained artists, working on the margins of society with no audience in mind.

The Adamson Collection Trust represent the voices of many who argue that identifying makers as artists and publishing their names and their work will redress the historical denial of identity, agency and recognition perpetrated by the asylum system.

For us at the Wellcome Library, the issue is how to manage and frame such sensitive material. Should work from the asylum be considered art or medical record? From this central question, an assortment of others spiral out, concerning whether artists should be named, how accessible work should be, and how it should be categorised.

Some argue that the Adamson Collection is an incredibly valuable historical voice, which provides an extremely rare insight into the experience of patients of the mid- 20th century asylum, and a counter voice to the dominance of medical and professional perspectives of patients defined by their diagnoses.

Watercolour by T.E. Hart, painted at Netherne Hospital, 1967. Image credit: Adamson Collection / Wellcome Library

On the other hand, some believe that this work should strictly be considered a medical record, inseparable from the clinical setting in which it was made. As the artistic process was performed by patients in a clinical context, their data (identity and work) must be protected and certainly not published.

Furthermore, by applying art historical terms such as Outsider Art or Art Brut, patients’ artistic expressions will be taken completely out of context, a context which is incredibly sensitive and requires careful framing to accompany viewing. Others suggest that the term ‘Outsider Art’ has become a catch-all description, diluted and expanded to encompass a broad variety of artists working across a wide range of media and styles.

Watercolour by Helen Greig, painted at Netherene Hospital, 1966. Image credit: Adamson Collection / Wellcome Library

The only way I see to answer these complex questions with legitimacy is to seek and represent the multiple voices of makers, collectors, practitioners and researchers, to breathe life into a collection which can mean so many different things to so many different people.

Originally published by Wellcome Library  under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.