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Hospital Snapshots 4

The previous posts in this series have looked at the importance of photography in illustrating certain psychiatric conditions. Contemporaries noted the value of the photograph over other forms of illustration for the way it was able to pay close attention to detail and record minute points of expression; especially important when using the image for diagnostic purposes. It is perhaps therefore surprising that the Bethlem photographs show more than just a head and shoulders view where the face is only a small proportion of the whole. Long lenses were available at the time and could have given a closer shot of facial features.

Photographs were useful for reasons other than diagnosis1 and, in the case of the photo below, it may have been the family relationship that it was thought important to document. This is the only double portrait in the Bethlem collection showing a father and son resident in the hospital at the same time. We might infer their relationship from their positioning, the son with a hand possibly on the back of the father’s chair. There appears no communication between them but perhaps the connection is made through the alignment of their heads and hands. Family history of mental illness was one of the standard questions asked on admission and this photograph might have been taken to provide visual evidence of this. They are dressed alike and we see the same view of their faces with their downcast eyes, set mouth and lowered chin and brows.

Thomas Bailey was 69 at the time this photograph was taken, his son John, 44. Both had been admitted to Bethlem suffering from melancholia. In Thomas’s case, the condition was triggered by the illness and subsequent death of his wife. John was admitted a month later: the stated cause, the death of his mother. Although their illness presented in different ways there were common features: both, for example, were reluctant to eat, and both appeared to have had something of a history of melancholia, having had previous hospital admissions.

There appeared to be some improvement in each case. Both earned their living as gardeners and, after a time, were persuaded to interest themselves in the gardens at Bethlem. Sadly though, neither case had a positive outcome. Thomas died at Bethlem and his son was discharged uncured.

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