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In the Frame October 2014: Richard Newton’s ‘A Visit to Bedlam’

This month’s picture, selected by the Head of Archives and Museum, is one of the many engravings held within the museum’s reserve collection.

This caricature of visitors to Bethlem Royal Hospital was published in 1794 by radical publisher William Holland. The artist, Richard Newton (1777-1798) is said to have published his first caricature at the age of 13. He died at the early age of 21.

The engraving depicts the popular past-time of visiting Bethlem, at a time when the hospital occupied its second site in Moorfields. Unrestricted visiting was in fact discontinued by the hospital’s governors in 1770 (well before Newton was born), but the practice remained (and still remains) one of the key facts about the history of the hospital that people remember.

The permanent exhibition in the new Museum of the Mind at Bethlem, due to open in February 2015, includes several historical accounts of visiting Bethlem. One such visitor was the poet William Cowper (1731-1800) who admitted to the mixed feelings that his visit inspired:

Though a boy, I was not altogether insensible of the misery of the poor captives, nor destitute of feeling for them. But the Madness of some of them had such an humorous air, and displayed itself in so many whimsical freaks, that it was impossible not to be entertained, at the same time that I was angry with myself for being so.

The question of whether humour has any place in the context of mental health has been explored by comedian Bea Roberts in the UK Medical Collections Group’s blog ‘Finding the Funny Bone’. This fascinating subject will be explored further by laughter therapist Alice Hortop at a free event hosted for us by the Cinema Museum in Lambeth on World Mental Health Day – do join us if you can!

Ldbth8 50  A  Visit To  Bedlam (1794) B