Tranquillity gallery captions

Humans have long sought tranquillity by withdrawing from life’s distractions to experience gentler states of mind. Tranquillity relates to many other feelings, including contentment, serenity, peace and balance.

Two newly commissioned installations explore contrasting experiences of tranquillity. Jasleen Kaur invites you to relax in a yoga studio while reflecting on themes of cultural appropriation in the self-care industry. Chrystel Lebas’s multisensory installation features some of the oldest forests in the world, translating the awe of being in these ancient landscapes. Both projects ask us to think deeply about our own wellbeing and our interdependence on other beings.

At the centre of ‘Tranquillity’ is a room of contemporary artworks and historic artefacts that reveal different approaches to regulating the body and balancing the mind. From seeking solitude to being outside, employing prayer or self-reflection, we contemplate some of the spaces and rituals that can help us navigate fluctuating feelings and cope with uncertainty. Situated throughout the gallery are contributions from artists, religious leaders, historians, psychiatrists and neuroscientists, which consider the impact on our health of feeling calm

“For most of Western history, strong feelings of joy and sorrow, desire or hatred, hope and despair were thought of as passions of ‘the soul’. The powerful passions were distinguished from milder affections and sentiments, including familial love and compassion. Our modern category of ‘the emotions’ is a much more recent invention. So, how did we get from passions to emotions, and what difference has it made?”

Thomas Dixon, Professor of History, Queen Mary University of London

Joy with Tranquillity, in Heads Representing the Various Passions of the Soul

Charles Le Brun, c. 1760
Wellcome Collection: EPB/D/32595

This engraving is a reproduction from painter Charles Le Brun’s drawings of the passions, which he presented at a lecture in 1688, later published and widely distributed among artists around Europe. Le Brun believed that the passions of the soul each produced a different facial expression. These were used to create a visual dictionary for artists to copy from. This page depicts the idealised state of “joy with tranquillity”. This was a polite and serene expression, with the sweetness of joy shown in a composed expression, which was morally preferable to raucous laughter.

Listen to a description by the curator in our digital gallery guide, with audio and BSL

My Body is a Temple of Gloom

Jasleen Kaur, 2021

Millions of people participate in yoga classes globally, seeking to centre themselves with this physical and meditative exercise. Yoga has been practised for thousands of years in what today is known as the Middle East and South Asia, but it is now largely divorced from its philosophical origins.

Interest in yoga in Europe and the US started in the early 20th century, as fitness regimes grew in popularity. These projected films from the 1950s show bodies performing poses, moving in strange, synchronised harmony and then stopping abruptly. The Yogi Swami Dev Murti, who appears here, travelled the world performing and teaching yoga to predominantly white audiences.

The wellness industry is a multibillion-dollar economy. This oversized palo santo wood sculpture – burned as incense for its stress-relieving and cleansing properties – references the rapid deforestation in parts of South America. The large crystal lamp represents the unethical mining of natural crystals, fuelled by increasing consumer demand for these indigenous resources-turned-wellness products. Kaur brings our attention to social injustice within these exotifying practices. She asks us to consider who is exploited by acts of careless self-care.

Listen to a description by the artist in our digital gallery guide, with audio and BSL

“What do you see when you hear the word ‘namaste’? It is often used to signal the conclusion of a yoga session. Today, in the global and capitalist racial imagination, namaste, as a word, not only operates as a signpost, but its gesture, hands pressed together, has come to signify related ideas of exoticism, spirituality, authenticity, and of course yoga.”

Rumya S Putcha, Assistant Professor in the Institute for Women’s Studies at the University of Georgia, USA

Balancing Act

What are the routines people have developed to manage their own wellbeing through the ages? This gallery unites historic and contemporary objects from several cultures that illustrate the search for tranquillity. From looking within to focusing attention outwards beyond the self, these objects address themes of spirituality, flow and reflection.

Diary writing can help us to process our thoughts, and going for a walk in nature can stimulate greater connection to the world around us. Some people turn to their faith in their journey for internal peace. Such approaches can offer a break from anxiety and restlessness, and provide moments for recovery.

In the ancient practice of humoral medicine, the body was composed of four humours that corresponded to the four elements of the universe. It was believed these humours had to be kept in balance with the cosmos in order to stay healthy. While our understanding of healthcare has changed over the centuries, the connections between our body and our surroundings still resonate powerfully today.

“Our consumer society promises happiness by getting more and more. But the Buddha said this is like drinking salty water – the more we drink, the thirstier we become. Spirituality advises us that true satisfaction comes from letting go and simplifying – cultivating contentment and appreciation for what we already have.”

Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, Buddhist nun and founder of the Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery for Himalayan women in northern India

Buddha, resisting the demons of Māra, who are attempting to prevent him from attaining enlightenment

Unknown maker and date
Wellcome Collection: 580096i

This colourful print from Sri Lanka shows a scene from the Buddha’s life on the path to enlightenment. It is mythologised as a great battle with Māra, the evil demon that tries to stop him with an army of monsters. The Buddha’s calmness and connection to the earth are in direct opposition to an explosion of movement and objects that attack him. According to Buddhist theology, Māra’s battle represents the struggle we each face daily to see things how they really are, not confined by fear, distraction and our own ego.

Listen to a description by the curator in our digital gallery guide, with audio and BSL

Le régime du corps (Regime of the Body)

Aldobrandino da Siena, 1390
Wellcome Collection: MS.31

This medieval manuscript was made for a noble French family, and it was passed down and annotated by several generations of women. The book contains advice on how to achieve equilibrium by regulating the ‘non-naturals’ – things such as sleep, exercise and food. The passions of the soul were included among the non-naturals, and too much of one particular passion was believed to lead to ill health.

Lao Jun, the ‘venerable gentleman’, wearing traditional costume, holding the Eight Trigrams and Yin and Yang symbol

Unknown maker, c. 19th century
Wellcome Collection: 567803i

In the religious tradition of Taoism, everything is a balance of opposites. The yin and yang symbol represents contrary forces that complement each other. Love is impossible without anger, and pain and happiness are intertwined. These interactions are celebrated and seen as complementary rather than at odds with each other. Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine regard the body as made up of yin and yang. To heal disease and prolong life, these elements need to be kept in a harmonious balance.

The freedom of sacred love: the monastic cell as the heaven of the loving soul

Unknown maker and date
Wellcome Collection: 32373i

This is a German illustration depicting a nun finding heavenly grace in solitude. The text states: “Far from all the turbulence of the world is my joy, my happiness and on earth the heaven for me.” Christianity, like many other faiths, often promotes retreat as a way of concentrating and better connecting with God.

#1000happydays

Sara Haq (@monkeytreepro), 2014–17
Courtesy of the artist

Over the course of three years, the artist Sara Haq kept a gratitude journal on Instagram called #1000happydays. By focusing on joyful moments, the journal helped her process challenging experiences. Excessive social media use has been proven to increase feelings of anxiety by promoting a desire for constant approval. Here, however, Haq harnesses Instagram’s journaling and connective potential, using it as a tool to treasure small details of everyday pleasure.

To scroll through the images from left to right, wave over the motion sensor.

Commonplace Books

Octavia E Butler, 1975–96. Illustrations 2021. The Huntington Library © Octavia E Butler.
Reprinted by permission of Writers House LLC acting as agent for the Estate

Octavia Butler’s writing addresses disability, race and gender rights. Her novels are often set in imagined near futures where characters from marginalised communities flourish despite their difficult circumstances. Butler experienced many years of poverty herself, only enjoying literary success later in her career.

As part of a personal motivational routine, she regularly wrote statements of self-encouragement. These notes reveal her ambitions of connecting emotionally with her readers, becoming a bestselling author, and becoming financially secure so she could support other writers of colour.

Listen to a description by the curator in our digital gallery guide, with audio and BSL

“If the brain is a predictive processing machine, then what is it that people do in art? They imagine and create. Art is not then something that is a luxury or a diversionary activity but is fundamental to survival; if you are not able to imagine, you will not be able to thrive [...] individuals can draw strength from their creative capacity and gain a sense of belonging in times of stress, adversity and vulnerability.”

Girija Kaimal, Assistant Dean for Special Research Initiatives and Associate Professor in Creative Art Therapies at Drexel University, Philadelphia, USA

first one’s the best

Celia Pym, 2015
Courtesy of the artist

Celia Pym is interested in memories held in our clothing. She repairs worn-out garments for a living, and sees a link between the therapeutic practical care of mending and her previous training as a nurse. She made this piece on a residency in the Dissecting Room at King’s College London. Here Pym darned socks to practise stitching, while medical students studied anatomy around her. These socks are intentionally cut, anticipating areas where they are likely to become worn through – carrying out preventative care. Using bright and contrasting coloured thread, she makes the mends visible, drawing attention to the damage and the process of coming to terms with it.

“The environment exposes our bodies to an endless stream of sounds, smells, tastes, physical contact, heat and, of course, sunlight. We use the energy from sunlight to synthesise vitamin D in our skin. Vitamin D is really important, as it is involved in how we respond to infection, the growth of new cells, muscle contraction and metabolism, and most recently, low levels of vitamin D in the blood have been linked to depression.”

Russell Foster, Head of Nuffield Laboratory of Ophthalmology and the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute, University of Oxford

English folding almanac in Latin featuring the ‘Zodiac Man’

Unknown maker, 1415–20
Wellcome Collection: MS.8932

This is an English folding almanac written in Latin. Almanacs such as these were designed to be carried by a physician on their belt and consulted to diagnose ill health. In the Middle Ages it was believed that human health was closely aligned to the cosmos, and this almanac contains astrological diagrams and celestial calendars. The Zodiac Man was a common medical illustration of the time, containing symbols situated at different bloodletting points, suggesting the times of the year when it would have been dangerous to treat those areas of the body.

Listen to a description by the curator in our digital gallery guide, with audio and BSL

Film extract, showing the folding almanac

Ben Gilbert, 2014, 1 min 43 secs
Wellcome Collection

The object can be seen at the end of the short film. Wave over the motion sensor to activate.

Mammoth Tree ‘Beauty of the Forest’

Plate to: US Pacific Railroad Surveys, California, Geological Report, Washington
After W R Blake, 1857
Wellcome Collection: 20150i

In this illustration a giant redwood tree towers above a small figure, symbolising its majesty. This particular species can grow over 100 metres and live for thousands of years. In response to mass felling of redwoods in the 19th century, there was public outcry. This galvanised support for the American conservation movement to demand the protection of forest land, which ultimately led to the establishment of national parks.

Manor Garden Allotments, Hackney Wick

Toby Glanville, 2006–7
Printed 2021
Courtesy of the artist

Just before the Olympic development of east London, Toby Glanville documented a local allotment before it was relocated. He captures the diverse intergenerational community as they tend to their plots of land, growing vegetables and enjoying family meals. Glanville’s photographs, for the ‘Moro East’ cookbook, poignantly capture the restorative benefits of gardening and gaining a greater connection with the earth, even in the middle of a busy urban environment.

“Studies have shown that time spent in a natural space can create positive changes to our moods, helping to break cycles of ruminative thoughts. Increasingly, as more people are living in built-up urban environments, we are looking to natural spaces for their restorative properties.”

Jacob Krzanowski, Associate Registrar for Sustainability at the Royal College of Psychiatry and Associate of the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare

Regarding Forests

Chrystel Lebas, 2021

For centuries, people have made pilgrimages to places of natural wonder to restore the spirit.

In 2019 Chrystel Lebas travelled to the Hoh Rain Forest in Washington State, USA, in search of a place free of human noise called “one square inch of silence”, and then on to the Japanese island of Yakushima, known for its Yakusugi or cedar trees. These two temperate rainforests contain some of the oldest living trees in the world.

Using a large-format analogue camera, Lebas takes photographs with a long exposure to capture a rich spectrum of blues and greens in the last moments of daylight. These monumental photographs are accompanied by a soundscape composed with the noises of birds, monkeys, wind and rivers recorded on location. The installation is complemented with a scent of petrichor that evokes the smell of the forest floor after it has rained.

Researchers at the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo first publicised their research into the health benefits of shinrin-yoku or ‘forest bathing’ in the 1980s. These studies suggest that the multisensory experience of being in nature calms the stress response of the nervous system.

Translating the sublime power of these ancient forests to the gallery, Lebas’s installation creates a sense of awe, and reminds us of our reliance on the natural world.

The installation contains sound, scent and low lighting levels.

Listen to a description by the artist in our digital gallery guide, with audio and BSL