‘Art was my salvation’

'Mr A Moves in Mysterious Ways: Selected Artists from the Adamson Collection', at the Peltz Gallery, Birkbeck School of Arts.

Mr A Moves in Mysterious Ways is a wonderful collection of pictures and objects from the Adamson Collection curated by Dr Heather Tilly and Dr Fiona Johnstone. The Adamson Collection is one of the world’s largest collections of works by psychiatric patients, compiled by Mr Adamson (aka ‘Mr A’) between the years 1946 and 1981 when he worked as an art facilitator at the Netherne Hospital in Surrey.

Abandoned Goods, a short film in the exhibition, tells the uplifting story of how, with support from the Wellcome Trust, these vulnerable works were rescued by the Adamson Collection Trust from hospital store cupboards and disused shower rooms as well as from the more befitting galleries of cultural institutes. This movement and juxtaposition from something forgotten and largely discarded to something emplaced and cared for is what, for me, underpins the vigour and import of the exhibition.

Not only does this movement signify a caring for these works but also a caring for those who created them. And as Val Huct, Chief Executive Officer of the British Association of Art Therapists, noted at the launch event, there has never been a stronger need for valuing and caring for difference than in these heightened times of ‘othering’. Care for the ‘other’ is extended through the exhibition not only in highlighting the therapeutic value of art and its story-telling capacity, but also by exposing the ‘other within’.

‘Art was my salvation’, says one of the artists, Rolanda Polonsky. Vividly, we see how art works as a way of exploring and expressing internal thoughts and feelings. J.P. Sennitt’s painting of the ‘Christmas Party’ (above) depicts, Mr A says, her isolation from the community, whilst Helen Greig’s ‘The Foetus’ shows a sense of renewal and rebirth. Art helps communicate what words alone cannot. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Metamorphosis series by Ron Hampshire, who arrived at hospital mute and ceased to paint once he regained his voice.

While the pieces in the collection sometimes challenge our sense of beauty, they all tell a story. In Martin Birch’s series of sketches – one of which is used for the exhibition title – he draws the ‘art department’ falling over a cliff. Perhaps it tells of his frustrations with the psychiatric hospital at a time when most patients were hospitalised for 30–50 years. Thea Hart and Mary Bishop both depict the often vulnerable and fractious doctor–patient relationship. Gwyneth Rowland’s painted flints tell another story – a story of her travels and education before her breakdown.  

In the sometimes difficult audiencing of these pieces, questions are raised – not only about what makes something aesthetically pleasing, but also about the value we put on these works and, more importantly, the value we put on the artists. What do these paintings, drawings and objects tell us about what it’s like to be excluded? How do we treat such people, and what parts of ourselves do we recognise in them? How do these works, for example, makes us relate to our own mental health?  

It seems that art travels, not only literally, as beautifully illustrated in the film, which I recommend should commence every visit, but affectively. The art exhibited here moved the artists, for therapeutic purposes, and continues to move the audience, for questioning our relationship to those who are socially different or do not conform. Listening to these stories is needed now more than ever. If you can, please visit this exhibition.

- Dr Fay Dennis is a researcher in addictions at King’s College London

The exhibition runs until 25 July 2017 at the Peltz Gallery, Birkbeck School of Arts

See also 'The power of the arts'.

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