An unlikely pairing of music and fabric

This month, we have a special focus on the Bethlem Museum of the Mind and the Bethlem Gallery, with two reviews from Sally Marlow and a preview…

The Bethlem Gallery shares a building with the Bethlem Museum of the Mind on the Bethlem Hospital site, but its mandate is very different. The Gallery is not a formal museum with fixed art and artifacts – it is a dynamic gallery and studio space in which artists with a connection to South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust both create and display their work. The Gallery’s latest display, In this Moment brings together the work of musician Gawain Hewitt and musicians from the City of London Sinfonia, with that of artist researcher India Harvey. The connection between the two is that they both worked with children and young people at the Bethlem and Maudsley Hospital School to create sound and fabric sculptures.

The Bethlem and Maudsley Hospital School has two sites, one at the Bethlem Hospital, and one on the wards in the Maudsley. Its pupils are patients at these psychiatric hospitals, being treated for what are often severe mental illnesses requiring inpatient stays or structured Monday–Friday programmes on site. The school is a vital adjunct to treatment, continuing the education of those who can’t attend their usual schools because they are unwell, and the team there under the direction of Headteacher John Ivens are innovative, flexible and creative. Hewitt and Harvey have worked with the staff, and with separate groups of children and young people for some time (in Hewitt’s case, more than three years), enabling safe workshop spaces for the creation of work with the school students. They then take the outputs of those workshops (sound for Hewitt, fabrics for Harvey), and create sculptures.  

Hewitt’s wooden sculptures cleverly disguise the technology which allows them to be interactive and immersive sound pieces. Gallery visitors are encouraged to move wooden birds from branch to branch of a beautifully carved tree, or to change the yellow tops of a hexagonal box and apply pressure to various points. The reward is sounds which were previously generated in the school workshops, and which form the backbone of the musical collaboration with City of London Sinfonia called Sound Young Minds. Students from the school worked with Hewitt and musicians on harp, clarinet, violin, viola, double bass, cello, oboe, French horn, bassoon and other instruments, drawing on themes of bird song, the seasons and astronomy from CLS’ repertoire, as well as classical pieces by Vivaldi and JS Bach.

These workshops were of course closed to the public and could not be observed, but Hewitt and Katherine Spencer, Principal Clarinet at City of London Sinfonia, ran a workshop for a research team from King’s College London who were seeking to understand the workshops and the process, and the therapeutic benefits of these. I attended that workshop, and was struck by how the process designed and managed by Hewitt flattened hierarchies and facilitated the involvement of everyone attending, regardless of any prior musical experience. Just as in the workshops with the school students, the musicians responded directly to sounds made by the workshop members on bespoke instruments, resulting in collective music making.  

When Covid hit, Hewitt moved the workshops online, using digital platforms and adapting the workshop methodology, so that music could still be produced. Hewitt then turned the hybrid compositions produced in both real life and online workshops into sculptures. The sculptures are clever, inviting interaction; and the sounds they produce are poignant and mesmerising. The brilliance of the project both culturally and therapeutically was recognised when Sound Young Minds won the 2020 Royal Philharmonic Society (RPS) Impact Award.  

Alongside these sound sculptures are Harvey’s soft, sculptural pieces. Harvey worked with students in what are described as ‘intuitive, gently exploratory and safe ways in multi-sensory environments’, using innovate ways to create fabrics, which were then used in the sculptures. These included the students wearing drawing and painting tools attached to their bodies, using sunlight to make cyanotype prints with found natural objects, and casting shadows with aluminium sculptures on folded fabric to create fractal patterns.  

This relatively small exhibition is ambitious in scope. It brings together two very different artists, using different media, and different inspirations – classical music, sunlight and shadow. Both artists have created bespoke technologies to work in psychiatric settings, and both have created processes to encourage young people to refocus their attention away from illness and move towards immediacy, spontaneity and improvisation – hence ‘In the Moment’. For young people whose illnesses often make it difficult to express their experiences verbally, the workshops and this subsequent exhibition are an insightful example of how the non-verbal captures what can’t be said, and how collaboration can result in unexpected outcomes.

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The cat's whiskers

It’s been claimed that Freud said ‘Time spent with cats is never wasted’. In fact there is no record anywhere of him actually ever saying that, although he did write to his friend Arnold Zweig: ‘I, as is well known, do not like cats’.  As someone who is more a dog person myself, I wasn’t sure what I would find to like at Animal Therapy: The Cats of Louis Wain, at The Bethlem Museum of the Mind. 

This exhibition has been timed to coincide with the release of The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, a biopic starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the man himself. For those of you unfamiliar with Wain’s work, he painted and drew cats of all shapes and sizes, not just as cats, but also in anthropomorphic scenes such as classrooms and at pianos, and embedded in kaleidoscopic images. He painted on board, canvas, paper and glass, and his work was widely published in newspapers and magazines, earning him enough of a living through the late 19th century until his death in 1939 to support his mother and his five sisters. He was also a long-term psychiatric inpatient at Springfield, the Bethlem and Napsbury, and there has been much debate over what his illness actually was, and whether diagnostic clues are visible in his artwork over the years. 

Animal Therapy (in my view wisely) does not speculate on Wain’s mental illness: rather it shows Wain’s art in its own right. There are cats on toboggans, playing cricket, and dressed up for Christmas. It is said that Wain often sketched in public places, secretly depicting people as cats. His cats are all wide eyed, which perhaps explains some of their appeal – Lorenz named this feature as one of the key Kindchenschema, i.e. characteristics of babies which serve to create the parental bond necessary for their survival. Wain’s work has an extraordinary level of detail, especially the other-worldly cats depicted in kaleidoscope format. Even for those of us who do not consider themselves cat people, and/or who tend to run to the hills when presented with the cute, there is much to like here. The exhibition also shows some of his non-feline work – a rare dog’s head for the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, architectural illustrations, and the rather beautiful ‘Sparrows, Ivy and Fires’. 

Inspired by the exhibition, I watched the movie, available on various streaming platforms. Having been primed by the exhibition, I found it riveting, filling in autobiographical details which enhanced my understanding of Wain and his life. The Bethlem Museum of the Mind is a rare resource, doing something unique, and this Wain exhibition draws from its impressive permanent collection. If the cats entice you to visit, leave time for the rest of the museum too.

- Reviewed by Sally Marlow, Engagement and Impact Fellow at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience

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More events as part of Bethlem Gallery’s 25th anniversary programme exploring music, mental health, climate change, care, racism…

Black Men’s Minds, 27 April – 7 May

This audio-visual installation  by artist and psychotherapist Stephen Rudder is a stream-of-conscious exploration of masculinity, power and culture, social pressures and lived experience. Interweaving spoken word with a musical score developed from the frequencies of psychotropic medications, the work bears testimony to the psychological tensions present in Black men’s minds, voices that are often missing in the conversations around mental health. 

Black Men’s Minds was developed in response to statistics illustrating the disproportionate numbers of Black men sectioned under the Mental Health Act. These show that Black people are 4 times more likely to be detained under the Act, and 17 times more likely to be diagnosed with a serious mental health condition than their white counterparts. 

An Ecology of Mind, 18 May – 27 August 

Re-imagining the grounds of the Bethlem Royal Hospital in Beckenham and The Maudsley Hospital in Camberwell as a ‘commons’, making cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of society. A series of exhibitions, outdoor commissions spanning 270 acres of green space, a one-day festival, and a symposium, linking to recent research suggesting that developing our sense of agency around climate change can be beneficial to mental health. Artists, mental health service-users and Climate Science academics will work together on and off-site exploring the relationship between our inner and outer worlds to present creative responses mapping change, building on the local knowledge of hospital staff and residents.

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