The Bethlem Royal Hospital Archive contains a unique collection of original prints of photographs of patients, taken by photographer Henry Hering. These are some of the earliest photographs ever taken of asylum patients, says archivist Colin Gale, and in some cases can be matched with the patient’s case notes.
This photograph of patient Emma Riches is one of the images that inspired my forthcoming novel The Painted Bridge. The novel explores the situation of Anna Palmer, held against her will in Lake House, and her relationship with the photographer conducting an experiment in the asylum.
Anna’s story is very different from that of Emma Riches, which Colin Gale recounts here, pieced together from medical records also held in the Archive.
‘We have the records from this time, the last part of the 1850s, and that means in some cases we’re able to identify who these patients were, their names, and read what is said in the notes about them.
‘This one is Emma Riches. Emma came into hospital not once but three or four times, each time in the 1850s, each time after another child was born. Doctors at the hospital didn’t use the term post-natal depression but they certainly recognised the phenomenon. It was then called puerperal insanity, or puerperal mania.
‘You can see a number of indicators in the first photograph that not all was well. First of all, looking at her right hand – this is not her hand. It’s the hand of a nurse, holding Emma Riches’ hand steady. It might have been for reassurance or perhaps because, exposure times being what they were, if your hand couldn’t remain still, it would come out as a blur.
‘Her eyes seem to have been touched up with ink, in this print. There’s a continuity from painted portraiture. With long exposures, if the eyes dart about, they appear milky in the print. Printers touched things up, just as they touch up digital photographs today, for magazines.
‘She’s wearing what was termed ‘strong dress’. This is not a strait jacket, it does not restrain her. But we know from Emma’s notes that when she came in to the hospital, she was in such a state that she would tear her clothes – not tear them off, but rip them to shreds.
‘Rather than go through a series of outfits, they put her in hospital issue strong dress, which couldn’t be torn because of the material it was made of.
‘In the second portrait, a visible sign of her recovery is that fact that she’s now wearing ordinary clothes, that would have suited her station in life as a Victorian woman with some social pretensions. A housewife, actually.
‘Sometimes people look at these pictures and say – “did they not just do her hair and put her in different clothes and make it look as if she’d recovered?” But because we can make the link with the case books, we’re able to go to the records and see what they actually thought. Our sense is that the hospital was not trying to deceive, in the documentation.
‘We can only speculate about why physicians wanted the photographer to come in, in the first place. But this was just at the time when they’d done away with restraint, they wanted to build up a body of evidence for their new treatment regime.
‘Whatever the intentions were, the images are incredibly striking, incredibly moving and provide a full sense of the person – and not just of “a patient”.’
Some of the best known photographs of patients in asylums are those taken by Dr Hugh Diamond, then head of the Springfield Asylum in Surrey. The Bethlem photographs, by contrast, were taken by a commercial portrait photographer, points out Colin Gale.
‘Henry Hering had a Regent Street studio in the heart of London. His bread and butter, his normal clientele, would have been the aristocracy, who would have come to his studio in Regent Street and spent half a day sitting for a portrait, just as their father and mothers would have done for painters.
‘These photographs are no less carefully constructed than the studio portraits would have been, in terms of where the subjects are sitting, what they’re holding, and doing. There were conventions. But it is extraordinary that patients who wouldn’t have dreamt of having their portraits taken, because it was far too expensive, were treated in this same way.
‘And not only would that happen but also, like Emma Riches, a number of patients have been photographed twice. These may be some of the earliest before and after photographs, in existence.’
More nineteenth-century photographs from the Bethlem Royal Hospital Archive collection, can be seen here.
Colin Gale’s excellent book Presumed Curable, written with Robert Howard, contains an extensive collection of later photographs from the Archive, matched with the moving stories of the people in the pictures. Visit the Archives & Museum website for further details.