The Anatomy of Melancholy
“Melancholy advanceth men’s concepts more than any humour whatsoever”.
Since antiquity, the term ‘melancholia’ has named a condition with a wide range of meaning: social, religious and medical. The seventeenth century bestseller The Anatomy of Melancholy assigned a range of causes to, and cautiously advanced possible remedies for, the condition. The book resonates within contemporary discussions about the impact heredity and environment may have upon mental health, and has inspired and influenced a canon of artists, writers and musicians.
The exhibition is an exploration of how the proposed causes and cures are represented within the art collection of Bethlem Museum of the Mind. The famous frontispiece of The Anatomy of Melancholy depicts some of these causes, and just one remedy, which are thematically explored through the exhibition. Across the 200 year span of Bethlem’s art collections, there are multiple echoes of these supposed causes, from Jonathan Martin and Richard Dadd in the nineteenth century; through Charles Sims and Madge Gill in the twentieth; to George Harding and Tracie Hodge in the twenty-first.
Robert Burton, the author of The Anatomy of Melancholy, thought that those afflicted with melancholia were “of a deep reach, excellent apprehension, judicious, wise and witty”, and in writing about the condition he believed he was holding up a mirror to society at large.