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“Uncomfortable Glory” Part 1

“…O God, God,
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!”

- Hamlet. Act 1, Scene 2, 136-138

There is an uprising currently flowing through social media sites. A movement that began with a few individuals and institutions such as Bethlem and slowly gathered more weight and momentum as people began to speak out. These people are all united in a common frustration with the lack of talk surrounding mental health issues. With this revolutionary spirit running through us it is easy to place our past dealings with mental health in a large box marked “How Could They Not Have Known…” and disregard it as a place where the mentally ill were hidden away. Reminiscent of Jane Eyre’s mad woman in the attic, never to be seen, heard or talked about, but two items in Bethlem Museum of the Mind’s collection prove this to be entirely inaccurate. The past is much more complex than we often give it credit for.

Raving Madness and Melancholy Madness are two Portland stone statues, created for the top of the entrance gate posts at Bethlem Hospital’s second (and short lived) home in Moorfields, by the famous sculptor Caius Gabriel Cibber. Much has been written on Cibber and the statues and they, in all their uncomfortable glory, are generally considered to be some of his finest work. At first glance they may seem almost vulgar in their heightened exhibition of two common conditions a patient could be diagnosed with in the seventeenth century. Raving Madness is twisted and pulls at his chained arms, a look of desperation pulls his face into a hideous wail, whereas, Melancholy Madness seems calmer but in a flaccid sense, to look at him one feels that any moment his limbs will give way and he will simply slump onto his stone bed.

Using these statues to adorn the hospital, a building famed for being more concerned with beauty than practicality with its impressive public gardens and lavishly ornamented front face containing armorial bearings; lanterns; balconies; stone pineapples and a large clock with three faces, may seem to be a horrendous case of exploitation of the human beings inside the hospital walls. Who can forget that this is a time in Bethlem’s history famed for the visits the upper classes could take to the facilities so they could witness the madness of strangers first hand. So it is understandable that we might find offence in the blatant use of the mentally ill as advertising. But we must not be so quick to judge...

Part 2 is available to read here.