As part of my research for The Painted Bridge, I spent time in the Bethlem Royal Hospital archive – a rich if unsettling resource for anyone interested in the history of mental health. The hospital is now sited in Kent but was originally in the heart of London.
Colin Gale, curator of the hospital archive, described the two statues that once graced the front of the old ‘Bedlam’ hospital – and are now in the archive’s museum.
‘These two statues, of melancholy and raving madness, document precisely what was known about mental ill health in the 17th century. They stood at the gates of the Bethlem Hospital in London and they dramatise on the one hand raving madness –mania, unpredictability, possibly violence. The raving figure is chained, and obviously in agony.
‘The other statue represents melancholy madness. No one would think to chain a melancholy patient and in the hospital the raving and the melancholy patients, to use the terminology of the time, were separated, on different wards. As also were men and women.
‘It’s extraordinary to think that it was considered acceptable, that no eyebrows were raised at the fact that these two were on the gateposts of the hospital. The statues were London landmarks and everyone knew them. They were sculpted and put in front of the hospital at the time it opened, in 1676. The sculptor was a Danish man called Cauis Gabriel Cibber and the pieces are carved from Portland stone – which is what the entire hospital frontage was made of.
‘By 1815, when the hospital moved, it was thought that it wasn’t really appropriate to have them outside and they took them inside the hospital. Some people took offence at them so they had a little curtain that they used to draw across them. Then they’d open them up again for display when the governors met.
‘The statues are pieces of their time; these are not twenty-first century diagnoses. They are descriptions of separate sets of symptoms. They go back to Greek ideas of mental and physical health – the four humours of the body had to be in balance and if they were not then by trial and error – bleeding the patients, purging them, getting them to vomit – you might restore balance and therefore the mental equilibrium.
‘Some people react very strongly to them when they first see them. They’re not expecting to come round the corner and see what they’re seeing. But having worked at the museum ten or eleven years, both are part of my mental furniture.’