Hidden talents: Art and the Asylum

Surveying Glenside Hospital’s artistic traditions was something of a revelation. 

Bristol buses by JEB

Art therapy was not a conventional treatment at Glenside Psychiatric Hospital, though some patients did enjoy the opportunity when it came their way.

A diorama of the male patients’ sitting room in the 1970s at the Glenside Hospital Museum contains a vibrant painting of Bristol buses by one talented patient.

The hospital buildings provided sanctuary to several artists whose work would reach much wider audiences.

More than a century ago, the young Stanley Spencer worked as an orderly at the Beaufort War Hospital when Bristol Lunatic Asylum, as Glenside was then known, was requisitioned by the War Office. 

Spencer publications at Glenside

Arriving in 1915 as a volunteer with the Army Medical Corps he spent just over a year there. The experience left its mark on him, as witnessed by some telling paintings now on display in the Sandham Memorial Chapel, a National Trust property in Burghclere, Hampshire.

In one he reimagined the gates to the hospital being opened by warders to a truck full of wounded soldiers. In others he depicted day-to-day events including work in the laundry.

One painting even shows him scraping the frost-bitten feet of a casualty. A more cheerful image shows soldiers tucking into his favourite snack of bread and jam. 

At the age of 24 Spencer was transferred to Macedonia where he spent more than two traumatic years initially with a field ambulance brigade and then with the infantry. Paintings of the atrocities he saw confirmed his reputation as a war artist.

Denis Reed Self Portrait

During World War II, Bristol-born artist Denis Reed, also served in the army, but his paintings were of calmer, rural and urban scenes. He too would spend time at the now renamed Bristol Mental Hospital, but this time as a patient. 

His was an extended stay and consultant psychiatrist Dr Donal Early encouraged him to draw, providing him with paper, pencils and ink. He produced more than 100 drawings of life among his fellow patients. His sketches of them bathing, chatting, shaving, sitting around, and sleeping offer a rare insight into hospital life. Some are on permanent display in the Museum.

Sitting patients by Denis Reed

After he left in 1955 Denis taught in Luton, but returned to live in Clifton and paint city and coastal scenes.

Bristol Museum and Royal West of England Academy hold several of his works.

Art remains an integral part of life in the museum. 

Former shop-keeper and laboratory scientist, Anwyl Cooper-Willis arrived at Glenside Hospital Museum in 2016 as part of a Bristol-based fine art group called ‘alldaybreakfast’. They had won grants from the Arts Council England and Bristol City Council to be Artists-in-Residence, and mounted several exhibitions based on the museum’s collection.

Anwyl’s contribution included a visual representation in 3-D coloured blocks of the different ways patients left the asylum.

She now finds herself chair of Glenside’s Management Committee, and has made arts central to her involvement. 

The museum has run drawing workshops about its exhibits in the Vestibules at City Hall in 2018 among other locations.

“Currently we are collaborating with Outside In, a national charity for artists who face significant difficulties,” she says. “During the pandemic we ran the courses online.”

”Up to ten artists have explored our collection and their work will be shown in the Museum on 14 May. They have also contributed to an online exhibition which features other works from Glasgow Museums and Wakefield’s Mental Health Hospital.” https://outsidein.org.uk/exhibitions/

Art as a form of therapy is now widely accepted as valuable antidote to a variety of conditions from dementia to depression. 

Dr. Eric Nestler, Director of the Friedman Brain Institute in New York, believes advances in brain imaging technology mean it is now possible to measure brain changes produced by art therapies. Getting the funds to turn anecdotal evidence into scientific proof, “That is going to be a major struggle,” he says.

Meanwhile Glenside Hospital Museum is always on the lookout for new ways of employing the arts to promote mental health. It has hosted an interactive theatre performance, and encourages visitors to find imaginative ways of expressing themselves.

Mike J

Journalist, trainer, editor; storyteller; amateur historian.

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