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Edward Adamson: art as healing

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By | From the Collections

I recently catalogued the personal papers of British artist Edward Adamson (1911-1996), donated to the Wellcome Library by his surviving life partner and collaborator, teacher and writer John Timlin. Together with a new website that I curated (‘The Adamson Collection’),  the papers give an insight into life and work of an extraordinary individual.

Adamson was born in 1911 in Sale near Manchester. He got a fine art degree from Beckenham and Bromley School of Art (today Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication). His parents, not convinced his future as an artist would be secure, made him obtain a chiropodist qualification as well. Adamson was not too keen on this imposed profession but the training came in handy during World War II when, as a conscientious objector, he served as a medical orderly in a non-combatant corps. File PP/ADA/F/2 contains Adamson’s chiropodist plaque: a gift from his parents, which, according to John Timlin, was never hung.

Chriopodist's plaque for Edward Adamson

Edward Adamson’s chiropodist plaque. WI no. L0074475

In the 1930s Adamson worked at the Haycock Press Ltd. on Fleet Street as a commercial designer. During this time, Adamson collected commercial and political ephemera (PP/ADA/F/1), most by artist Henry J. Recknell (as credited on the back).  Many are visuals: original artwork submitted by the artist to the agency before the mass production of folded leaflets. Some of the slogans and drawings are still in pencil, a testament to the fact that they are not finished commercial products. The file contains designs for commercial leaflets (Osram, Meccano: Toys for Boys (pictured), Whiteway’s Cyder) and political campaigns of the day (Tariff Reform).

Advertisement for meccano

Advertisement for meccano. WI no. L0074474

After the war, Adamson worked with the British Red Cross Picture Library, bringing reproductions of famous paintings to the hospitals. It was believed that presence of art was therapeutic, and Adamson gave short talks about the pictures, initially at tuberculosis sanatoria.

As the programme was extended to mental asylums, in 1946 Adamson visited a long-stay psychiatric hospital at Netherne in Surrey. Soon he became the first artist in the UK to be employed by the NHS, working there full time from 1948 as Art Director.

At that time, methods viewed today as inhumane (such as insulin coma treatment and major brain operations, including lobotomies) were still common. Many patients came to Adamson’s lectures with their heads shaven or covered in bandages, sporting black eyes and disfigured post-operation faces.

The art sessions facilitated by Adamson were initially part of a psychiatric research project, in which painting was prescribed as a form of treatment under rigorously defined conditions. The participants were aware that their creative output would be examined by hospital psychiatrists. One of them, Eric Cunningham Dax, published the results of this experiment as ‘Experimental studies in psychiatric art’ in 1953.

Pantomime costume design: Genie

Painting of a genie. Costume design for Netherne pantomime. WI no. L0074472

Adamson worked at Netherne until his retirement in 1981, but the psychiatric context of the early sessions changed in the 1950s. For Adamson, artistic self-expression itself was healing. In his studio he created a space where otherwise restricted people could express themselves freely. His style was crucially non-interventionist: he was a facilitating ‘artist’, not a psychiatrist or therapist interpreting the works. His outlook was profoundly humanistic, and he made provisions for the people who preferred to work alone or required unusual materials.

As the participants of his workshops were hard at work, one of them allegedly asked Adamson why he wasn’t drawing or painting like everybody else. Thus prompted, he started sketching portraits of the attendees that make up the section PP/ADA/E/1 of the archive. The sketches are in ink, pencil and crayon and fill nine small-size notebooks as well as a file of loose sheets of paper.

Christmas pantomimes organised in British asylums have a long history and another example of Adamson’s creative output in the archive is a file of costume designs for pantomime at Netherne (PP/ADA/E/2). Unfortunately, it is not clear whether the costumes designed and painted by Adamson, and pictured here, were ever used in an actual performance.

Adamson was not affiliated with any school of psychology or psychotherapy, but his approach was close in spirit to that of the followers of Swiss psychiatrist and analytical psychologist C.G. Jung (1875-1961), who found that the artistic process alleviated trauma and stress in his patients. In 1984 Adamson and Timlin published ‘Art as Healing’, a book about Adamson’s work and the Collection, with an introduction by Jungian analyst Anthony Stevens.

Pantomime costume design: Pirate

Painting of a pirate. Costume design for Netherne pantomime. WI no. L0074473

Adamson regarded the creative process as much more than just killing time while at a hospital  and he was instrumental in establishing the British Association of Art Therapists in 1964. In later life he distanced himself from British art therapy and preferred the idea of Outsider Art.

The Adamson Collection, which started around 1946 when one of the closed-ward patients at Netherne gave Adamson some drawings on toilet paper, currently holds about 5500 objects, including drawings, paintings, ceramics, sculptures and works with other media. Diverse and original, it holds a great number of works by female artists. Parts of the Collection were shown at major international exhibitions of Outsider Art, including two at the London ICA (in 1955 and 1964) and others in Egypt, Canada and Israel.

Adamson believed that exhibiting the Collection educated the public about the creativity and humanity of those labelled with mental disorder or illness, thus diminishing the stigma associated with these conditions.

Shortly before Adamson’s death, a group of his colleagues and friends submitted his name for approval to the Prime Minister’s office, to be considered for an MBE. File PP/ADA/A/5  includes the letter from Downing Street confirming that Adamson was to be included in 1997 New Year Honours.  Alas, this remained in the realm of potentiality: Adamson died on 3 February 1996 and honours are not awarded postumously.

Author: Anna Ostrowska is a library assistant at the Wellcome Library.

Anna Ostrowska

Anna Ostrowska is a Library Assistant at the Wellcome Library.

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