Friday, April 17, 2009

Bedlam: The Art of Madness

The word bedlam – meaning chaos and confusion – takes it name from the Priory of St Mary of Bethlehem mental institution in London (Bedlam is a variant of its original name). The oldest of its kind in the world, it is still a psychiatric hospital, though the original building, location and name has changed several times. It is now known as the Bethlem Royal Hospital and is located near Bromley in south east London. In the 19th century it was located in Southwark, where the Imperial War Museum is now housed; before then Bishopsgate – Liverpool Street station now stands where it was (and the legacy of madness lives on in the daily commute).

Artists such as Vincent Van Gogh are famous to the point of cliché for their madness. Two lesser known British Victorian artists – Richard Dadd and Louis Wain – both spent time at Bedlam institution, and produced some of their greatest imaginative work whilst there.

Richard Dadd (1817-1886) was merely a competent painter before entering. He first became ill whilst travelling in Egypt in 1842. On his return, he killed his father, convinced he was the devil. Yes, Richard Dadd killed his dad. Possibly being paranoid schizophrenic or bi-polar, he was taken to Bedlam hospital where he produced highly detailed and imaginative works, such as Fairy Fellers' Master-Stroke. Dadd spent twenty years at Bedlam before being moved to Broadmoor, where he lived for another twenty years before dying in 1886, aged 68.

Louis Wain's (1860-1939) famous depictions of cats led fan HG Wells to comment, 'He has made the cat his own'. His charming and humorous drawings and watercolours of cats became massively popular through their reproduction on postcards, greetings cards, prints and magazines in the late 1800s. However, Wain made little money and having no real business sense, was exploited by his publishers. He also had a family to look after, including mother and sisters. When his mother died Wain started showing signs of schizophrenia (though it may have been Asperger's). He was committed to Springfield mental ward in 1924 by his sisters. He stayed there a year before personalities including HG Wells and the then Prime Minister intervened on his behalf and he was transferred to Bethlem. It was there that he started his psychedelic cat paintings – wide-eyed cats with colourful swirling abstract patterns behind them.

Ater five years at Bethlem he was moved to Napsbury hospital near St Albans where he lived the remaining of his fifteen years in relative comfort. It helped that the hospital had a lot of cats.

Works from both artists – and other less-known mentally disturbed artists – can be seen in the tiny gallery at Bethlem Royal Hospital museum. When I visited there weren't any Louis Wain on display. I asked about them and was kindly taken to the store room where hundreds of paintings and drawings are kept and rotated. I was shown about a dozen Louis Wain paintings and drawings.

Some months ago I picked up an 'original' Louis Wain painting from a car boot sale for £10. I mentioned this to the museum curator and asked if it was likely to be an original. He said probably not. Everyone fakes Louis Wain apparently (more than Louis Vuitton). Even his sisters did. I asked if one painted by his sisters would be more valuable. No, he said.

The gallery plans to expand next year into larger premises which will do justice to the fine collection of deranged art they have.

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