Four years on from a triumphant re-opening, the Bethlem Museum of the Mind is continuing to do the crucial job of exploring mental health in a quiet London suburb. The museum not only explores the history of treatment but of recovery, it looks into the lives and experiences of people with mental health problems as well as celebrating their achievements.
I took this last part straight from their website –
The Bethlem Museum of the Mind records the lives and experience and celebrates the achievements of people with mental health problems.
It is strange but I have never really considered that last part, ‘celebrates the achievements of people with mental health problems’. It is perhaps not a typical role for a museum, but it is this section that has really stuck with me after visiting their latest exhibition – The Anatomy of Melancholy.
I have a long association with Bethlem Museum, which I have explored more in a previous blog on the museum re-opening in 2015. It was my local museum and I helped play a part in consultation work on displaying challenging parts of the collection. It is always a pleasure to visit, particularly on a cold January evening for the first exhibition by new director Colin Gale.
Anatomy of Melancholy takes as its inspiration the 17th century work by Robert Burton that attempted to categorise the causes and cures for melancholia. Burton believed there were six contributing factors – sickness, solitude, jealousy, disappointment in love, insanity and religious melancholy. His work began to move thoughts away from the considered belief that the four humours (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood) governed wellbeing and health.
The exhibition explores each cause through artworks held in the Bethlem collections. Richard Dadd’s work at Bethlem is always a highlight and the cold solitude and isolation of grief is portrayed in ‘Sketches to illustrate the Passions, Grief or Sorrow’, it is used to haunting effect.
Jealousy is represented by Ronald Kimberly’s 1944 work ‘The Strangler’, a brutal reminder of how often sexual violence and jealousy go hand in hand. Another striking portrait is ‘A solitary child’ by Marion Patrick, her monotone pallet is heavy with sorrow.
Children are a recurring theme as Maureen Scott’s ‘Mother and Child at Breaking Point’ typifies the loneliness felt particularly by many first time parents.
My favourite piece is the mesmerising ‘Women and Chequered Staircase’ by Madge Gill the acclaimed spiritualist artist known for her ‘Outsider Art’. The stylised faces are unsettling, it is heartbreaking to hear of her attempts to make contact with her two children who died in infancy and it add a poignant back story that chimes with Burton’s ideas on religious melancholy.
The Bethlem Museum being on the site of a working mental health hospital allows you to connect with the pain and anguish many of these artists felt, but it is Elize Warriner Pacquette a contributing artist who talks on the opening night that makes me return to the words from my opening paragraph. The Bethlem celebrates achievements.
Elise talks about her work ‘ The Deadly Blue’ and her own struggle with eating disorders. Her art comes from a place where there are no words to express how you feel and no words to communicate what is going on inside your head. The art on show in The Anatomy of Melancholy is communication, express and celebration. A celebration of overcoming struggle, of being able to comment on a place and time, it is an expression of self. It is why the Bethlem Museum is so important.
And as for Burton’s remedies there is only one kind:
“Borage and Hellebore fill two scenes,
Sovereign plants to pure the veins
Of melancholy, and cheer the heart
Of those black fumes which make it smart.
I am not sure how far that will take us.
But as the accompanying booklet states, it was Burton’s near contemporary Thomas Wills who believed for ‘the healing of spirits’, ‘the soul should be …composed to cheerfulness’ by ‘pleasant talk, or jesting, singing, music, pictures, dancing, hunting, fishing and other pleasant exercises’.1
and as the long melancholy month of January draws to a close quite frankly who can argue with that.
The Anatomy of Melancholy is on at the Bethlem Museum of the Mind from 16th January – 27th April and it is free. For more details on opening times and accompanying events please see the website – https://museumofthemind.org.uk/
1 – Hunter and Macalpine, Three Hundred Years of Psychiatry 1535-1860 (Oxford, 1963) page 191.