Photograph of a patient at Springfield county asylum by Dr Hugh Diamond.  By kind permission of the Royal Society of Medicine.

Photograph of a patient at Springfield county asylum by Dr Hugh Diamond. By kind permission of the Royal Society of Medicine.

Dr Diamond’s Photographs

The Painted Bridge is now out in paperback, in a beautiful new jacket. I first posted this piece on the inspiration behind the novel last year, but am putting it up again to mark the paperback publication.

One of the themes of The Painted Bridge is learning to see.

The heroine, Anna Palmer, sees visions but has to learn to see the truth, both past and present. The doctor photographer, Lucas St Clair, makes pictures on glass plates, but over the course of the story begins to see more with his heart, through his own subjective lens.

The idea of Anna as a visionary came even before I began researching for the book but the character and role of Lucas St Clair began with my discovery of the real-life photographs of Dr Hugh Diamond.

 

By kind permission of the Royal Society of Medicine.

By kind permission of the Royal Society of Medicine.

Mentalist and keen amateur photographer Dr Hugh Diamond believed that photography could be used in the diagnosis of mental illness. Startling though this idea is now, Dr Diamond was working in an era when ideas about the so-called ‘physiognomy of insanity’, and textbooks on the subject, were still current.

Facial muscles were seen as ‘muscles of expression’, that could lead into the mind. We still read people’s faces and expressions so the idea is not entirely alien.

I began to research further and came across Portraits of the Insane, The Case of Dr Diamond, by Adrienne Burrows and Iwan Schumacher. This  book contains an extensive collection of the photographs taken by Dr Diamond, as well as many photographs made at Bethlem Hospital by photographer Henry Hering.

The photographs of patients are moving and powerful.

 

Reproduced by kind permission of The Bethlem Art and History Collections Trust.

Reproduced by kind permission of The Bethlem Art and History Collections Trust.

At the time when they were made, photography was a new art – or science, its practitioners had not yet decided how to classify it.

The grand, glass-roofed photography studios in the west end of London were the preserve of the rich, who were accustomed to sitting for their portrait in oil paint.

But cheaper studios in more populous parts of London and other cities offered ordinary people the chance to have their photograph made, often outdoors in a yard, using the wet collodion technology of the day.

The conventional style of pictures then was perhaps the equivalent to a Hello magazine photo shoot. People wore their best clothes, put on their best, unsmiling, faces. Exposures were long; a grin would turn into a rictus when held for up to a minute. They might have had the backs of their heads resting on a ‘posing stand’, an iron clamp designed to help photographic subjects keep still.

People posed against often ostentatious backgrounds – Roman pillars, painted on canvas, or by a potted palm or, at one Regent Street studio, in the company of a stuffed horse.
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The ‘lunatics’ photographed by Dr Diamond, and Henry Hering at Bethlem, presented themselves with much less artifice. Dressed in their asylum clothes, they look out at the photographer with an honesty of expression, a candour, that is utterly unlike most of the portraiture of the day. It looks modern, and is arguably the beginning of documentary photography.
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By kind permission of the Royal Society of Medicine.

 

Looking at the photographs, thinking about the women pictured in them, was an important part of the inspiration for The Painted Bridge.
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Idealistic young doctor Lucas St Clair, inspired by the work of Dr Hugh Diamond, hopes to further the proposition that through a photograph, a physician may determine ‘the exact point which has been reached in the scale of unhappiness.’
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But Anna Palmer is trusting in him to be able see from her photograph that she is not insane at all but the subject of a terrible injustice.

 

Collodion final flat crop 40 MB
Anna Palmer played by Sarine Sofair in the trailer for The Painted Bridge. Photograph made with wet collodion plate by Sean MacKenna in 2012

 

More on the RSM collection of Hugh Diamond photographs here.

More photographs from the Bethlem Archive can be seen here.

The Painted Bridge can be purchased here. Pre-order price £5.99

 

 

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