Vawdrey Archive Project: Session three, a visit to Wellcome Trust

The third session for the Vawdrey project was held at the Wellcome Trust in London. Wellcome are not only funding this project but are also very interested in the process of  archiving the Vawdrey art therapy work. Here the project consultation co-ordinator Rachel Johnston shares her diary of the visit.

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Outside In artist Jenny looks at the collection

Throughout the day we were with Sol, Helen, Toni and Vicky from Wellcome and they shared some of their thinking and experiences with us. We saw some fantastic artwork from the Adamson Collection and there were some vigorous discussions around issues such as ownership and copyright, the naming of artworks, catalogue descriptions and whether the artwork is therapeutic art or art therapy.

We started the day with an introduction from Helen who talked about the ethical and practical dilemmas that Wellcome has faced in cataloging and working with their collection of art therapy works. The conclusion that they have reached after much discussion and consultation with artists, therapists, psychiatrists and service users is that a consensus may be difficult to reach! I think we all appreciated their openness as there are so many similar questions for us in working with the Vawdrey archive.

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Artwork by J.J.Beegan, Credit: Adamson Collection/ Wellcome Library

Sol then showed us a series of artworks from the Adamson Collection. Adamson was an artist and the first art therapist employed by the NHS working at Netherne Hospital in Surrey between 1946 and 1981. During this period he collected a huge body of patient artwork that is now housed at the Wellcome Collection. The first piece we saw was by J.J.Beegan’s and was a drawing on a piece of hard hospital toilet paper made using a matchstick, the only material available to him at that point. The absolute necessity for him to express himself visually was well illustrated by this piece.

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The library at Wellcome

Next was a series by Ron Hampshire whose work was notable in its variety – over the seven pieces shown the work progressed from a roughly hewn pencil image on a piece of card to a series of bucolic painted landscapes. The general feeling amongst the group was that the earlier pieces were most interesting and that the landscapes at the end were more predictable as artworks, though beautifully painted! We wondered if the artist had made the pieces to please Adamson or his doctors rather than remaining true to himself, though of course we can’t know the truth of this and, of course, bring our own prejudices and assumptions to the interpretation.

We talked about whether the works were therapeutic art or art therapy, touching on one of the central issues in the Vawdrey project. Adamson did not analyse the patients’ art, but merely allowed them to work in their own way seeing the very process of making as being curative.

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‘The Shipwreck’ by Hampshire, from the Metamorphosis collection. Credit Adamson Collection/ Wellcome Library

Sol went on to tell us that Hampshire’s work represented for Adamson an example of successful art therapy at work and used it as an example of what could be achieved using art as a therapeutic tool within a medical environment. Adamson titled the works ‘Metamorphosis’ – his title, not the artist’s, we noted!

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Project lead Rachel Johnston (right) with Outside In artist Natasha H during a previous Wellcome visit

Toni talked about the practicalities of acquiring and keeping the collection, ethics and ownership and whether or not the artists should be named. The case of Gwyneth Rowlands was given as an example. Her family had given permission for her work to be shown, but during research a letter came to light in which she specifically requested her work not be shown. It was decided that since the work had already been exhibited publicly and the family were happy for this that Wellcome would continue to make the image available as it was in the public interest to do so.

In the afternoon Vicky told us about the cataloguing and particularly the descriptions and titling of artworks. The challenge for an archivist is to describe artwork in a straightforward manner avoiding personal interpretation. Looking at some of the catalogue descriptions attached to artworks we could see how difficult this can be. Some of the descriptive titles used to identify artworks are quite vivid such as the excellent, ‘A face eating a person with blood pouring from the mouth’, for example! What we realised in looking at these is that no statement about an artwork can be entirely neutral, even in terms of individual choice of words.

We had an absolutely fantastic day and learned a lot. Many thanks to all at Wellcome!

For more on the Vawdrey Archive Project, please click HERE

Featured image: ‘The Trees’ by Hampshire, Credit Adamson Collection/ Wellcome Library

For more on the topic, from the Art as Healing free resource, please click  HERE

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