Bedlam Revisited

Artist Gemma Anderson explains why she wants to add to the vocabulary of psychiatry

When Gemma Anderson’s grandmother went into a psychiatric hospital, the artist saw the person she knew disappear under labels and diagnoses. The vocabulary of psychiatry lacked the words to describe the narrative and imagery of a person’s life. So, Anderson’s Portraits, Patients and Psychiatrists exhibition, currently hung in The Naughton Gallery at Queen's, is a visual thesaurus.

‘Every etching,’ Anderson explains, looking around the Naughton Gallery, ‘relates to the subject’s personal narrative. The plants and objects are of significance to the individual and the treatment of illness.’

Obviously, it isn’t easy to get access to psychiatric patients. For that, Anderson is indebted to Dr Tim McInerny, who collaborated with her on the portraits. With his help, and a grant from the Wellcome Trust, Anderson gained access to patients at Bethlem Royal Hospital in London. She also went on ward rounds with doctors and attended lectures.

Some of the subjects of her etchings are patients in secure wards, whilst others – as the title of the exhibition suggests – are the psychiatrists who treat them. ‘It was easier to work with the patients sometimes,’ Anderson admits. ‘They were more used to going over their narratives. The psychiatrists, I think, were maybe a bit taken aback at being asked questions they were used to asking themselves.’

On the walls it is hard to tell psychiatrist from patient. The etchings are not labeled or named. To decide between those in need of treatment and those offering it, the viewer has to depend on their own preconceptions on how the mentally ill present themselves.

Those ideas were something Anderson was very aware of while working on the portraits. Particularly since the Royal Bethlem Hospital was once colloquially known as Bedlam, where the rich paid to go and look at the patients.

‘I was always very interested in pseudosciences like physiognomy and phrenology,’ Anderson explains. ‘The idea that physical appearance narrates your inner life. But they have very negative connotations, and I wanted this to be physical representation in a positive way.’

Since its completion the exhibition has been hung in Bethlem Royal Hospital, the Freud Museum, Hay-on-Wye and the Globe Theatre. It is interesting, Anderson comments, to see how different audiences interpret the appeal of the exhibition. Visitors to the Freud Museum were interested in the exchange of ideas, the Globe by the narrative and the art world in general by the concept and technical elements of Anderson’s work.

‘Everything is drawn directly from life onto copper,’ Anderson explains of her creative process and medium. ‘The first thing people say is, “You have to start again from scratch if you make a mistake”. But I have never had to. Either I don’t make a mistake, or, if I do, I just make it work.’

The complexities of Anderson’s etchings make that statement even more impressive. Each portrait is constructed from hundreds – thousands? – of hair-thin lines, with imagery of monkeys, plants and birds spilling out of the subject and into the space around them.

Not all of the subjects of the works could attend the exhibitions – although Anderson remarks that one patient has visited every exhibition to date – but they were all given copies of their portraits.

Anderson tilts her head to look at the etchings hung on the Naughton walls. She muses aloud that it was her hand that drew them, her choice what to include and what to discard. ‘It is a portrait of them, but it is also a self-portrait in a way,’ she says.

Portraits, Patients and Psychiatrists runs at the Naughton Gallery at Queen's until June 21.