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Hospital Snapshots 1

This series will focus on the collection of photographs taken at Bethlem in the late 1850s by Victorian photographer Henry Hering. Hering was a noted photographer of his day with his own studio at 137 Regent Street, good society connections and royal patronage. Photographing patients of Bethlem would appear to be something of a departure.

Bethlem in the 1850s was changing under the reforming leadership of the new superintendent physician, Charles Hood. It is Hood himself, rather than the hospital, who appears to have commissioned Hering; perhaps in part to document patients under his new enlightened regime. It is likely that Hering was also attempting to document what was then known as the ‘physiognomy of insanity’; the idea that the face could reveal the essential nature within. Medicine at this point was attempting to classify mental illness and doctors saw the potential of the image for diagnosis.

John Conolly, the superintendent physician at Hanwell Asylum believed that those trained to observe patients’ physiognomy were better able to recognise and respond to signs of mental disorder. He thought that melancholy for example would show the external signs of ‘a dusky and partially flushed complexion, …the head well formed anteriorly; forehead broad, but usually deficient in height.’

Examining this photograph of Eliza Josolyne he commented ‘The eyebrows are seen drawn into puckers expressive of inward suffering; and the upper lids droop over the downcast eyes. Beneath the lower lids are furrows….The lower lip is depressed by the prevalent sorrowful thoughts; and the body and head droop in opposite directions.

Eliza was first admitted to Bethlem in 1851 aged 18 in an agitated and delusional state from which she recovered and was discharged. Her two subsequent hospital admissions in 1856 and 1857, when this photograph was taken, describe her as having low mood. Her illness is ascribed to anxiety at work and an inability to cope with being responsible for 16 rooms in a house where she was the only domestic.

We will return to Eliza’s story next month.

Eliza J1
This research is being supported by a bursary from the Understanding British Portraits subject network.