Illustrations of heads showing surprise and aversion. Holograph manuscript by Louis Charles d'Ourches Bigarures. Credit: Wellcome Library, London
I have recently catalogued the papers of Adamson Collection Trust, set up in 1978 to promote the work of British artist Edward Adamson (1911-1996) and the collection of artworks he gathered over the years. The Adamson Collection is a unique British outsider art collection comprising artworks created largely by patients with whom Adamson worked at Netherne, a psychiatric hospital in Surrey between 1946-1981, and also by people he saw privately after his retirement. This comes hot on the heels (well, hot-ish) of making Edward Adamson’s personal papers (PP/ADA) available for research in August 2012, which I blogged about back then.
The papers of the Adamson Collection Trust include trustees’ files, with mixed correspondence and meetings’ agendas and minutes, as well as extensive documentation of the Adamson Collection: pictures, slides, transparencies and prints of works. Promotional material, including exhibition leaflets and press cuttings, is accompanied by various background documents: academic and professional publications on mental health and art therapy as well as information on other collections of outsider art from all over the world. One of these is the Cunningham Dax Collection, held at the University of Melbourne’s Dax Centre. It was started by psychiatrist Edward Cunningham Dax, with whom Adamson collaborated at Netherne (1946-1950). Soon after that Dax moved to Australia, taking some of the early works of Netherne patients with him.
Adamson started collecting around 1946, when one of the closed-ward patients at Netherne gave him some drawings on toilet paper. From 1956 the works were shown at the hospital gallery, visited by some 3,500 people a year. On Adamson’s retirement in 1981 about 6,000 objects (of the estimated total of 100,000) were selected by Adamson and Rudolf Freudenberg (a senior psychiatrist and Medical Superintendent at Netherne) for “both artistic and psychiatric interest”. They were moved to the estate of natural scientist, Miriam Rothschild (1908-2005) in Ashton Wold. Rothschild was Adamson’s friend and supporter, and further works were added to the Collection as Adamson continued to see people at his studio until 1995. The Ashton Gallery opened to the public in 1983.
After Adamson’s death in 1996, the Adamson Collection was moved to Lambeth Hospital, an inner London mental health unit within South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust (SLaM), on permanent loan from the Adamson Collection Trust. In 2000 SLaM named a new mental health unit at St Thomas’ Hospital the “Adamson Centre for Mental Health” as a tribute to his pioneering work. Despite three decades of effort, funding to save the Collection as a whole was never found and unsuccessful fundraising attempts are documented throughout trustees’ correspondence.
Adamson’s life partner and collaborator John Timlin was the Trust’s chairman 1978-2005 (with Sheila Donaldson-Walters serving one term as chair 1994-1997) and David O’Flynn, consultant rehabilitation psychiatrist at Lambeth Hospital, took over in 2005. Adamson was the Collection’s curator until 1996, the role taken up by Alice Jackson, head of art therapies at Lambeth Hospital, 1997-2012, and currently performed by O’Flynn.
The material was transferred to the Wellcome Library as a gift in 2012 and 2013. Prior to this, it was held by Michael Freudenberg in his capacity as Adamson Collection trustee and former secretary and by David O’Flynn and Alice Jackson at Lambeth Hospital. The arrangement of the collection preserves these multiple sources.
The newly catalogued collection complements Adamson’s personal papers. Notably, section SA/ADC/F includes correspondence, Christmas cards and other personalia similar to those found in PP/ADA. Unlike Adamson’s personal archive, which were transferred from his house in London, these files were kept in the Ashton Wold gallery, and subsequently moved to Lambeth Hospital after his death and have remained undisturbed since 1996. Section SA/ADC/E features records of the artworks (photographs, slides and transparencies, postcards and prints) adding to the ones in PP/ADA/C.
SA/ADC/E/4 is devoted to illustrator and engraver George Buday (1907–1990), author of The History of The Christmas Card (1954), and contains a selection of colour Christmas cards with the prints of his engravings, mainly of religious nature. Some of the cards were sent to Adamson by Buday but most of them are examples of the ones designed for Adamson as part of his personal stationery, complete with pre-printed seasonal greetings and Adamson’s home address.
Adamson believed that exhibiting the Collection educated the public about the creativity and humanity of those labelled with mental disorder or illness, thus diminishing the stigma associated with these conditions. In this spirit, Adamson trustees make sure the works are exhibited, most recently at The University of Nottingham’s Djanogly Art Gallery (exhibition now finished) and at Halle Saint Pierre in Paris (until August 2014).
Approximately 5,000 artworks from the Adamson Collection were transferred to the Wellcome Library’s Paintings, Prints and Drawings collection in July 2012 and are currently awaiting rehousing.
Author: Anna Ostrowska is a library assistant at the Wellcome Library.
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