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In the Spotlight: John Robert Cozens and Bernardo Amiconi

This month we feature two artists, only one of whom was ever a Bethlem patient, the other being widely (and mistakenly) reported to have been such. One was a pioneer watercolourist of Georgian England; the other was an Italian artist of the Victorian age whose biography has been forgotten to such an extent that all our efforts at research have so far ended in frustration.

The works of landscape artist John Robert Cozens (1752-1797) exerted a remote but formative influence on English Romantic painters such as J.M.W. Turner and John Constable, and were the subject of a documentary on watercolours recently shown on BBC1. The documentary’s narrator recounted what has come to be the received version of Cozens’ final years:

A doctor diagnosed him as suffering from ‘a decay of the nervous system’. Today, we’d call it a breakdown. At the age of 42, he was committed to the lunatic asylum, Bedlam. There is a final, bittersweet twist to Cozens’ story. The doctor that looked after him in Bedlam happened to be an art collector, and recognising Cozens’ brilliance, he bought up his pictures, and used to hold get-togethers of up-and-coming young artists, and he would sit them down and suggest that they copied Cozens’ work. Thus it was that a future generation of watercolourists were inspired by a man languishing in an asylum.

This is the received version, but it is incorrect in one important particular. John Cozens certainly was a patient of Thomas Monro, Bethlem’s physician from 1787 to 1816, but he was never a patient at Bethlem. Admissions to the eighteenth-century Hospital were not only restricted to those whose prognosis was promising they were overwhelmingly constituted of paupers and the ‘middling sort’. Gentlemen suffering ‘a decay of the nervous system’ would consult ‘mad doctors’ such as Thomas Monro in a private capacity, if at all. This seems to have been exactly what happened to John Cozens: in February 1794 he was received into Dr Monro’s private care, and December 1797 he died whilst still in it. 1

By contrast with Cozens, whose life and works have been the subject of much comment and criticism, the London-based Italian artist Bernardo Amiconi seems to have left little biographical trace, at least online. We can say that Amiconi was brought to Bethlem Hospital at the age of 48 in mid 1877, fresh from being apprehended by police in the course of attempting to enter Buckingham Palace. Apparently he had claimed not only an appointment with Her Majesty, but a shared nuptial understanding. Within six months, he had died in the Hospital, the inevitable outcome of so-called ‘general paralysis of the insane’, a terminal neurological condition for which no pathological description, let alone cure, was available in the nineteenth century. Why (in the light of Bethlem's restrictions on admission) was he allowed into Bethlem in the first place? Those suffering from general paralysis "would not be admitted if the Committee acted strictly within the limits of the regulations", wrote the Hospital's Physician Superintendent in 1883, but "if [GPI] be not studied in a hospital like Bethlem, which is essentially a hospital for cure and alleviation, I do not see much prospect for its future relief". In short, Bethlem made an exception to its rules of admission for patients suffering from general paralysis (and then only for those whose families were able to pay for their hospital care). A cure for GPI was eventually found, but not at Bethlem and in any case not until the twentieth century, too late for Bernardo Amiconi and many others like him. To our knowledge, the world awaits a connected narrative of Amiconi's life and works. We would be glad to hear from anyone who can supply reliable sources on the subject.