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The Adamson Collection


Images from the collection of Edward Adamson, a pioneer of British art therapy

This section features a selection of images from the Adamson Collection, assembled by the British artist Edward Adamson (1911-1996). A pioneer of art as therapy in psychiatric hospitals, he eventually came to consider the work of patients in the wider context of Outsider Art. His collection of works by patients has travelled internationally and provides valuable insights into the private worlds of patients stigmatised by mental illness.

Adamson held a fine art degree from Beckenham and Bromley School of Art (now Ravensbourne). After World War II, he worked with the British Red Cross Picture Library. In a holistic approach targeting minds as well as bodies, their initiative acknowledged the therapeutic effects of art by displaying reproductions of famous paintings in hospitals.

Adamson gave short lectures accompanying the paintings in tuberculosis sanatoria. When the sanatoria started to close, the programme was extended to mental asylums, and in 1946 Adamson visited a long-stay psychiatric hospital at Netherne in Surrey. Soon the medical superintendent there asked him to facilitate art sessions for the patients on a regular basis. Adamson became the first artist in the UK to be employed by a hospital, working full time from 1948 as Art Director.

With the creation of the National Health Service in 1946, the way in which people in asylums were treated started to change. However, methods viewed today as inhumane (such as insulin coma treatment and major brain operations, including lobotomies) were still common. Netherne was no exception: many patients came to Adamson's lectures with their heads shaven or covered in bandages, sporting black eyes and disfigured post-operation faces.

The sessions that ensued were part of a psychiatric research project, in which painting was prescribed as a form of treatment under rigorously defined conditions. The participants were aware that their creative output would be examined by hospital psychiatrists - most prominently Eric Cunningham Dax, who published the results of this experiment as 'Experimental studies in psychiatric art' in 1953 and showed a selection of paintings from Netherne during the International Exhibition of Psychopathological Art in Paris in 1950. The paintings were both a diagnostic tool and a shortcut in treatment, and they were especially helpful when patients would not communicate verbally.

Adamson worked at Netherne until his retirement in 1981, but the psychiatric context of the early sessions changed after Dax left in 1951. For Adamson, artistic self-expression itself was healing and in his studio he created a civilised space, enabling otherwise restricted people to experience a certain degree of freedom. His style was crucially non-interventionist: as a facilitating 'artist', he did not teach the patients how to draw or paint, did not suggest their content, and did not interpret their works as a psychiatrist or therapist would have. His outlook was profoundly humanistic, and he made provisions for the people who preferred to work alone or required unusual materials.

Adamson was not affiliated with any school of psychology or psychotherapy, but his approach was close in spirit to that of the followers of Swiss psychiatrist and analytical psychologist C G Jung (1875-1961), who found that the artistic process alleviated trauma and stress in his patients. Together with his life partner and collaborator John Timlin, Adamson paid regular visits to the Jungian art therapy community in Withymead, Oxfordshire. In 1984 Adamson and Timlin published 'Art as Healing', a book about Adamson's work and the Collection, with an introduction by Jungian analyst Anthony Stevens.

Adamson regarded the creative process as much more than just killing time while at a hospital, and he struggled for 'art therapy' not to be subsumed under 'occupational therapy' in the public health hierarchy. He was instrumental in establishing the British Association of Art Therapists in 1964, and in 1969 the first British Art Therapy training programme opened at St Albans School of Art (today the School of Creative Arts of the University of Hertfordshire).

In later life Adamson distanced himself from British art therapy and preferred the idea of Outsider Art. Works produced by mental asylum patients were first appreciated for their aesthetic value in a 1922 study by German psychiatrist and art historian Hanz Prinzhorn and were subsequently compared to Surrealism and Expressionism. 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 the society with no audience in mind. Leaving behind the psychiatric bias of early exhibitions of 'schizophrenic art', accompanied by case histories, today Outsider Art focuses on the visual and material aspect of works and the creative process behind them. The umbrella term encompasses a variety of artists working across wide range of media and styles.

The Adamson Collection - which started around 1946 when one of the closed-ward patients at Netherne gave Adamson some drawings on toilet paper - currently holds about 5500 objects, including drawings, paintings, ceramics, sculptures and works with other media. Diverse and original, it holds a great number of works by female artists, including late sculptor Rolanda Polonska. Parts of the Collection were shown at major international exhibitions of Outsider Art, including two at the London ICA (in 1955 and 1964) and others in Egypt, Canada and Israel.

In 1995 Adamson donated several objects to the American Visionary Arts Museum in Baltimore, USA. By the summer of 2013, all 5000 paintings and drawings, which have been kept at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust (SLaM) since 1997, will have been temporarily relocated to the Wellcome Library. The Adamson Collection Trust (which was established in 1978 to promote art therapy, Adamson's work and the Collection) is in discussions with several prestigious institutions to ensure the Collection's future: the Wellcome Library SLaM, in conjunction with the Bethlem Royal Hospital Archives and Museum the Collection de l'Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland and the University of Roehampton. Personal papers of Edward Adamson have been donated to the Wellcome Library and are available for research.

Adamson believed that exhibiting the Collection educated the public about the creativity and humanity of those labelled with mental disorder or illness, thus diminishing the stigma associated with these conditions. Confronted with the direct message of the works, 'sane' onlookers hopefully become less hostile and prejudiced and develop compassion or even a degree of identification with the artists.


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Images from the collection of Edward Adamson, a pioneer of British art therapy.