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Portraits in Bethlem

The Museum features many historic images of patients at Bethlem Royal Hospital. It is one thing for us to imagine patients in the Hospital in the 1700s, but it is quite different to see those who were captured by photographers like Henry Hering in the 1850s, or the medical attendants Barker and Parker in the late 1880s which feature in the casebooks. These images bring history alive, and make events that seem abstract and distant bracingly real to us.

But these photography collections, held at the Museum, are not the first images that exist of Bethlem patients. In the early 1840s Dr Alexander Morison, then joint physician at Bethlem, commissioned a series of portraits to illustrate his new book, The Physiognomy of Mental Diseases, and the latest version of his earlier publication, Outlines of Lectures on Mental Diseases. The patients depicted in these portraits were drawn from a number of sources, but a large amount were treated in Bethlem. They have all been digitised by our colleagues at the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh, who hold the original drawings, here.

Morison hoped his publications would regularise diagnosis and increase working knowledge of mental health issues amongst the medical community. His books were specialist publications aimed at trained medical personnel, not the general public. Therefore the portraits were taken as accurately as possible, possibly using a camera lucida which would have enabled the various artists he commissioned to sketch quickly and accurately. The portraits are simple and uncomplicated drawings, probably because these would have been easier to engrave and then print, and also because Morison wanted to use them to illustrate the notes he presented in his books in as clear a method as possible. This is in itself an art and a type of artiface, as Caroline Smith observes in her short book 'Seeing is Believing' which examines the process behind these portraits.

Bethlem at this time was not the place of chaos depicted as 'Bedlam' in Hogarth's 'The Rake's Progress', but nor had it yet fully embraced the contemporary methods of humane treatment and non-restraint in its site in St George's Fields, Southwark. As the effective joint-head of the Hospital, Morison baulked at measures that might have limited his control over patients, and was only replaced when the Court of Governors were forced to allow the government inspectors, the Commissioners of Lunacy, to have oversight at Bethlem. His annual report of 1842 reveals patients were still subjected to outdated methods of treatments, like cupping and bleeding, which would be discontinued after he left.

We are unsure if Morison ever sought consent from the patients for these portraits, but even if he did he did not explicitly link all the portraits to a named individual. Therefore we have been working on a project to uncover the names and lives behind these portraits using the information from the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, the details recorded in Morison's books, and our digitised casebooks on the Find My Past website. We have then used a range of genealogical sources to investigate their lives outside of the Hospital. Many of these patients were only in Bethlem for a relatively short space of time, often only a year, and this work can give us a rounded view of their whole lives, rather than just the glimpse the casebooks and the portraits show us.

One of the first people we have looked at in this way is Amy Allingham, and I think it is fair to describe her as one of the earliest patients at Bethlem to whom we can add an image and a lifestory with a reasonable amount of accuracy. Please click on this link to read more about her life, as researched and retold by our volunteer Teresa.

LDBTH2 17 44 New Bethlem Hospital St Georges Fields c 1830 a

Bethlem Royal Hospital as it would have looked when Morison was appointed in 1835