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In the Frame for March 2014: James Tilly Matthews’ ‘Air Loom’

Ldbth885 Air Loom C 1804 C
LDBTH885-Air Loom (c.1804)

In our current exhibit, we are celebrating how Edward Adamson pioneered art therapy, arguing the healing potential of self-expression. However, for patients such as James Tilly Matthews, with a lack of control over identity and a paranoia over expression, self-expression becomes a much more complex and even traumatic matter as the idea of the ‘self’ is so divided and subject to concern.

Matthews’ rendering of the ‘Air Loom’, which haunted his dreams, wouldn’t seem out of place in a work of Victorian science fiction. Its assertions of mind-control through pneumatic controls akin to the keys on an organ, which alter magnetic fields and spin threads of air to hijack and subjugate its victims, seem as eccentric and antiquated as H.G. Wells’ descriptions of high-tech aliens equipped with wooden weaponry. In similar detail to Wells, Matthews demonstrates mechanical and mathematical precision in which the machine has painstakingly been composed and rationalised, incorporating contemporary scientific advances in pneumatics which, whilst seeming incredulous to a modern audience, would have bordered upon the semi-credulous to a contemporary layman.

What I find interesting, though, is that in contrast to the detail of the loom, its operators and setting seem poorly delineated and ill defined. Whilst well-proportioned in themselves, the spacial relationships the operators share with each other are ambiguous. Their faces are either turned away from the viewer, or, in the cases of figures W and U (documented by Matthews as The Liar and Jack the Schoolmaster respectively), their faces are shrouded by darkness or distance. The machine floats in largely negative space, with almost no indication of its setting save for an accompanying diagram, illustrating a ‘Door into a Back Room’ that isn’t represented in the picture. For me, this is the crux of the picture: the contrast between delineation and ambiguity, an obsession to mathematical proportion and realism about the loom which redirects attention from the Freudian cast and dreamlike setting which it operates within. And if we peer past the artistic renderings of the ‘Air Loom’ and corroborate it against Matthews’ written and oral accounts, we find a catalogue of scatological operations festering beneath the surface.

For there are many obscene particulars in Matthews’ accounts of the loom, collated by John Haslam in Illustrations of Madness, that are not expressed in his diagrams of the air loom. The fuel of the machine (a muculescent inventory of ‘seminal fluid, male and female’ ‘effluvia of dogs’, ‘ stinking human breath’ ‘putrid effluvia - ditto of mortification and of the plague’, ‘stench of the sesspool’, ‘gaz from the anus of the horse’, ‘human gaz’, ‘gaz of the horse’s greasy heels’, ‘vapour and effluvia of arsenic’ and the ‘poison of toad’) is not characterised at all within the diagram. The loom’s operators, far from reclining in classical poise or isolated in work as they do in his visual rendition, frequently ‘lie together in promiscuous intercourse and filthy community’ in his spoken accounts. In his written and oral accounts, the machine is characterised by filth and scatology, something completely over-ruled in his visual compositions.

Following Mike Jay’s arguments, we can ascertain that the obscene content of this puppet theatre, like the putrid effluvia that power the Air Loom, perhaps speak of the ‘unspeakable reaches of his unconscious, acting out distorted and repellent fragments of his inner life that he can never fully acknowledge’. Whatever the scatology may represent, it remains unacknowledged within his visual representations. Why Matthews can express these sentiments orally but not visually remains to be argued, but this division of his expressions highlights the most prominent effect the air-loom had on him, which he described as kiteing:

‘This is a very singular and distressing mode of assailment, and much practised by the gang. As boys will raise a kite in the air, so these wretches, by means of the air-loom and magnetic impregnations, contrive to lift into the brain some particular idea, which floats and undulates in the intellect for hours together… the idea which they have kited keeps waving in his mind, and fixes his attention to the exclusion of other thoughts.’

All this raises some things to think about in relation to the Adamson exhibit, and in particular how different mediums of expression arouse different senses of identity and different cathartic responses. After all, where does Matthews see himself in his depiction of the loom? Does X mark the spot, and is he the victim marginalised in the top left corner? Or is he conscious of himself marking out the machine as he draws it, investing in its mathematical precision rather than exploring the cast which operates it?