Artist Beth Hopkins explains how she used her experience of researching the Adamson Collection to create an embroidered wall hanging.
Edward Adamson was one of the first artists to work with patients in a mental hospital. The Adamson Collection at Wellcome consists of his personal papers and artworks by his patients.
Discovering the collection
Researching the collection was a process of following my instincts. I worked without a specific goal in mind, other than to immerse myself in the many artworks. Each new discovery led to the next – Adamson’s patient notebooks led me to his sketches of the patients working in the art studio.
Adamson described Netherne Hospital in Surrey as completely enclosed – all doors were locked and there was a fence around the grounds. When he first went to Netherne in 1946, he was shocked to see the state of the patients. Lobotomies were still in use. The teeth of the patients were removed, sepsis was believed to be a cause of mental illness, and false teeth were only given out at mealtimes.
The art studio that Adamson created was a sanctuary within the hospital. Patients had no privacy on large wards, so Adamson set out the studio to allow each artist their own private space to work in. He sometimes drew the artists in the studio, painting and drawing. His nine sketchbooks are in the collection.
There are also black-and-white photos of life at Netherne Hospital – however, to protect the identities of the patients, I’m not able to share these. So I made my own sketches, which I can share.
The highlight of my research was seeing the paintings first hand. Each painting is fragile as they were made with whichever materials could be found at the hospital – mostly poster paints on cheap paper. Although the colours have, in many cases, faded, they’re still quite bright.
A large proportion of the artworks are by unnamed artists. Their work stands without any context, other than that they were made at Netherne. In his book, ‘Art as Healing’, Adamson shows the work of a young man experiencing depersonalisation (where the body is felt not to exist, or to lack cohesion). Little else is known about the young man, other than that he eventually recovered and moved to Italy. In the collection, he is called Unknown Artist 272.
Throughout the process, I made my own sketches of the collection. This helped me to absorb the work on a visual level.