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In the Frame for July 2010: Nelson, On the Ward

My painting of the month is On the Ward, a cartoon vignette of a Maudsley Hospital ward, drawn – we think in the 1940s - by someone known only as ‘Nelson’. The scene depicted is one of pathos and black humour in turns, as the bedridden patients each face private dramas of varying degrees of implausibility.

Above the mantelpiece, where in a 1940s hospital you might expect to find a portrait of the King, hangs a caricature of what appears to be the Maudsley’s medical superintendent. A man is sitting up in bed to the right of the fireplace, reading a book titled Blood and Gore. He is sweating profusely, his face is contorted and his head is pounding.

To his right, another man sleeps, but not soundly: in an age of rationing and austerity, he dreams of pork chops. Others dream of ‘Battle of Britain’ dogfights and of saws cutting through wood. Those awake are variously pictured playing a panoply of musical instruments, being prodded by a doctor with a bag of nasty-looking tools and team of inquisitive onlookers beside him, or selling prayer shawls to bickering nurses.

The scene is deliberately far-fetched, and yet it sounds an authentic note of frustration at the want of privacy and purposeful activity on a psychiatric ward. Thomas Hennell, a Maudsley patient of the 1930s and another artist, complained in his autobiography that:

...we were kept in bed, and to some extent under drugs and suggestion…the most comfortable state was one of half-dozing; in this condition the mind seemed to get physical relief; but the conscious waste of time was very troublesome, and, on the other hand, reading was burdensome, and quickly produced a confused and turbid state.

– Thomas Hennell, The Witnesses, p. 167
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On the Ward seems to have been ‘Nelson’s’ mock celebration of this enervating state of affairs.