Adamson described the artist as “an elderly, well-educated, unmarried woman”. His response to this pair of works is recorded in his personal notebook, and draws particular attention to the artist’s positioning of figures, which he connects to her emotional state. He observes that in St Francis and the Birds “[St Francis] remains impassive”, almost “unaware” of the presence of the other figures. He identifies a “slight relationship between the two figures in the middle distance”, and notes how the rabbits in the background “seem acutely aware of the figure on horseback.”
He praises Christmas Party as “delightful in its almost childlike simplicity” attributing this to “the innate good taste and the pleasant personality of the artist”. He also observes, however, that “the characters are all isolated from each other, everybody is supposed to be enjoying themselves but they are only linked together by the paper streamers as they dance round the tree”. He associates this “isolation from the community” with “how the patient themselves feels.”
Little is known about Helen Greig, other than that she eventually recovered and left the asylum. A number of paintings have been identified with her name on the reverse, and many of these make use of foetal or embryonic imagery. Adamson suggested that many inpatients were attracted to the theme of renewal and birth, producing works that refer to the phoenix arising from the ashes, the butterfly emerging from the chrysalis, the egg being hatched, or, most frequently the process of human gestation and birth, with the foetus generally represented as a fully grown adult. This striking image appeared on the cover of the mental health magazine Headlines in 1985.
These three paintings focus on a real or imagined relationship between doctor and patient. The first image depicts a small child leading a white-coated clinician by the hand, simultaneously suggesting both vulnerability and trust, the darkness of the composition balanced by a sense of hope about the future. The second portrays a naked woman as the physician’s puppet; there are thematic similarities with Mary Bishop’s painting of the undressed female patient demonstrated before a group of clothed medics (also on display in this exhibition). The third picture situates the familiar duo of patient and physician outside the institution, in a natural landscape where a deep ravine separates one from the other. Clothed in a simple blue dress and turning her back on the doctor, the woman strides out across a field of red flowers; the image is one of liberation.
Mary Bishop was admitted to Netherne in 1946 after a breakdown attributed to responsibilities assumed during the Second World War. Adamson described her as “a quiet, retiring person, interested in music and the arts”.
Over a thirty-year period she painted thousands of images, many of which have been widely reproduced in mental health publications. Cri de Coeur appeared on the front cover of OPENMIND in 1984 and was subsequently used to promote a high-profile campaign by The National Association of Mental Health.
A recurring theme in Bishop’s work is the relationship between clinician and patient. In these paintings the doctor is portrayed as sadistic and untrustworthy; the patient feels “put on display” and likens herself to a bewildered kitten threatened by a vicious red claw poised for attack.
The exhibition title borrows from a sketch by Martin Birch, captioned Mr A moves in mysterious ways his wonders to perform. Adamson is depicted with his eyes closed, smiling serenely as a diminutive angel blows its trumpet violently into his ear. Other drawings by Birch suggest overt hostility to art therapy: The Art Department at Netherne going over the cliff might be read as an exercise in wish fulfilment, whilst The Death of Adamson (not displayed) portrays the artist sinking into a watery grave.
Birch has a strong signature style, with many works combining text and image, and often utilising a wry sense of humour, as for example, in White cat face on red. Drawing of patient in terror suggests Birch’s response to his confinement in the psychiatric hospital, a view that is echoed in further works (not displayed) with slogans that include “Prisoner of a Welfare State”.
Before her illness Rolanda Polonsky had trained as a professional sculptor; Adamson reintroduced her to art-making after he found her cleaning the corridors of the hospital. She frequently drew to music, placing the tip of the pencil on the paper and allowing the image to suggest itself as the melody moved through her. On the back of all her drawings and paintings, Adamson has noted the title given to the work by Polonsky, the date, and, if applicable, the music she was listening to at the time. She produced thousands of preparatory drawings for what is considered to be her masterpiece, the fourteen sculptures of the Stations of the Cross, originally displayed in the chapel at Netherne.
After thirty-five years in the hospital she was released and returned to her family in Paris, later moving to a convent in Italy. She died in 1996, the same year as Adamson. Towards the end of her life she wrote to the Adamson Collection’s Secretary, saying: “Art was my salvation”.
Known as “the flint lady”, Rowlands was admitted to Netherne in the early 1960s. She initially copied naturalistic images of butterflies onto smooth pebbles, progressing to paint increasingly sophisticated compositions on flints collected from the fields surrounding the hospital, exploiting the irregular contours of the material, and exploring a range of iconographic themes that include self-portraiture, animals and biblical stories.
After leaving Netherne, Rowlands wrote repeatedly to the guardians of Adamson’s estate, expressing concern for the future of her flints. To contextualise her creative practice she produced a three-volume hand-written dossier, which she titled Foxhunting in homage to Ted Hughes’ poem The Thought-Fox. This document suggests that prior to her breakdown, Rowlands had travelled widely, teaching English in schools in Germany, South America, and the Middle East. She was highly cultured, with an extensive knowledge of art and literature. Her flints are clearly informed by her education and experience, and should be understood not simply as expressions of the asylum experience, but as artworks that exist in dialog with other visual and literary traditions.
Ron Hampshire’s Metamorphosis sequence:
Adamson has described how Hampshire was mute when he first came to the studio, and for several weeks merely stared at the blank sheet of paper in front of him. Eventually, he produced some sketches on a small corner of card. After six months, he was finally able to sketch on a larger sheet of paper, but without touching the paint that was always provided for him. After an extended period of time, he progressed to painting, first simply flooding the paper with colour, and later producing representational imagery. As this happened Hampshire slowly began to use one or two words, and by his final painting could speak without difficulty. Once language had been restored to him, he lost all interest in art making.