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Hospital Snapshots 8

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The last posts have considered the composition of the image and how much these asylum photographs may have had in common with mainstream portraits. How also, sitters’ clothing, pose and surrounding objects might reveal something of their individuality.

It is important to stress that hospital records, whether written or visual, are not the last word on an individual, nor the most significant aspect of their life. They record a tiny chapter and were not produced by or for the patient concerned, were not seen by them and were solely for the hospital’s use. While it is impossible at this remove to accurately gauge the input patients may have had, they might have been able to exercise some autonomy over their photograph, albeit in a small way.

Not everyone chooses to meet us face to face. Less than a quarter of the photographs, show the individual looking directly to camera, though it should be noted that this was very much in line with the conventions of the time.

Those who meet the camera’s, and by extension, our scrutiny do not always invite us to come closer. Daniel McNaughton, who assassinated the Prime Minister’s private secretary in 1843, looks out squarely enough. However, the lowered brows, untroubled gaze and slightly parted lips through which we can see the teeth, coupled with the folded arms and closed body language make us keep our distance. The books on the table next to him appear incongruous; we are not convinced he has read them.

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Even those patients who are not looking at us directly or are deliberately looking away, can be no less revealing.

The case notes for Thomas Wilson, a non-conformist minister suffering from severe melancholia comment: ‘The expression of his countenance is a good evidence of his mental wretchedness.’1

Sitting with slumped shoulders and loosely clasped hands, he seems entirely oblivious to the presence of anyone else. He is not merely looking away but is disengaged from the whole process. His eyes are open but not fully focused and we have the impression of someone fixed on something within. His slightly unkempt hair and baggy suit add to a sense of distraction.

Looking at his photograph 150 years later, we too might make the same observation of ‘mental wretchedness’. Wilson, previously well respected by those he ministered to, later tried to commit suicide and, although unsuccessful, never recovered. He was later transferred to an asylum nearer his native Norwich.