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Thomas Hennell, Nature and Recovery Part 1 of 2

LDBTH860v Taylor c 1943 a

Tailor by Thomas Hennell (c.1943), an example of one of his paintings showing the use of traditional methods of work

If you were to visit the Bethlem Hospital today, you would see the vast green space that makes up Monks Orchard. It is home to its namesake orchard of trees bearing plump apples, roaming squirrels - not unlike James Hadfield's Poor Jack - and a garden where service users have made and sold their own jams and preserves. If I were to suggest that connection with nature were instrumental to someone’s recovery, I might be mistaken for someone out-of-touch with the gravity of mental illness, or at worst a nonbeliever in medical science. However, for former Maudsley patient and artist Thomas Hennell, nature was a direct and distinct influence in his journey towards health.

In the 1930s, Hennell was an inpatient at three different hospitals with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. He experienced hallucinations, both auditory and visual, and delusions. He was stated to be paranoid and violent, and he feared electricity. Hennell's delusions led him to attempt to raise his former headmaster from the dead. It was then that he was apprehended by the police and his institutionalisation began.

At that time, occupational therapy was by no means a new phenomenon. In fact, it was believed that work, exercise and recreation were conducive to mental health since the days of Galen in the 4th century B.C. In England, many reforms regarding the upkeep of asylums were made in the 19th century, where in place of restraints service users could enjoy fresh air, space, and cleanliness and engage in gardening and carpentry. However, following these developments, more and more asylums were built and more and more service users had to be accommodated. Many asylums reverted to the use of restraints, some of which would not face further reform until the 1990s - leaving Hennell in the wrong place at the wrong time. I have previously written of the influence that Margaret White, occupational therapist to William Kurelek in that same hospital, had over his artwork and his faith: but this would be two decades after Hennell's time. Instead, Hennell was confined to his room and his bed, subjected to a battery of medications and injections for which explanations were never given. He wrote in his book, The Witnesses, that his treatment there was ineffective and that he continued to hallucinate.

Thankfully, Hennell would only spend five months under these conditions. Under the advice of Dr. Edward Mapother, an esteemed psychiatrist of his time, he was transferred to Claybury in Essex. Mapother believed that there was no sign of recovery and Hennell would require care for the rest of his life. However, Hennell only remained in Claybury for two-and-a-half years. How did Hennell's recovery come about so swiftly? A key difference between the Maudsley and the Claybury of the period was the use of occupational therapy: Hennell wrote that service users there would make and mend furniture under the instruction of highly skilled craftsmen. Another difference, one more impactful to Hennell, was proximity to nature. Claybury stood on a 269-acre countryside that Hennell greatly enjoyed walking in, despite not being at liberty to do so unsupervised. He likened the grounds to the music that David played to King Saul, and wrote that his hallucinations became more harmonious with the trees and leaves. He stated that the trees reminded him of "human friendships,” and that they were so full of voices that he believed that he would notice their individuality if he listened hard enough. A pen-and-ink piece he made at Claybury had a title stated by critic G.W. Stonier to be the bestdescription of insanity ever written - the piece was called “The Men Were Silent; The Trees Talked.”

By Sophia Gal

Hennell Claybury

A pencil sketch by Hennell of a patient being restrained at Claybury (approx 1934)


Kilburn, Jessica. Thomas Hennell: The Land and the Mind. London. Pimpernel Press Ltd, 2021.

Lambirth, Andrew. “Thomas Hennell should be more widely known.” The Spectator World. Updated April 24, 2021. Accessed August 25, 2021.

“Nature: How connecting with nature benefits our mental health.” Mental Health Foundation. Accessed August 18, 2021.

Paterson, Catherine F. “A short history of occupational therapy in psychiatry” in Occupational Therapy and Mental Health eds. Creek, Jennifer and Loughes, Lesley.Philadelphia. Elsevier Limited, 2008

Robbins, Jim. "Ecopsychology: How Immersion in Nature Benefits Your Health." YaleEnvironment360. Updated January 9, 2020, accessed August 25, 2021.