Abandoned Goods: the power of creativity on film

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By | From the Collections

Hot on the heels of its Locarno Film Festival success (the Golden Leopard for the Best International Short Film in  the Leopards of Tomorrow Competition), Abandoned Goods, a documentary by Pia Borg and Ed Lawrenson, part funded by a Wellcome Trust Small Arts Award, will be screening at the London Film Festival on Monday 13 October.

The harvest, artist unknown, courtesy of Adamson Collection Trust

The Harvest, artist unknown. Image credit: Adamson Collection Trust.

Abandoned Goods,  funded by Wellcome Trust and Maudsley Charity, was the only entirely UK production selected for Locarno this year. It is a short essay film about the extraordinary collection of artworks created by patients detained in Netherne psychiatric hospital in Surrey between 1946 and 1981. The artworks were created in a pioneering art studio in the hospital run by the artist Edward Adamson, whose personal papers are available for research in the Wellcome Library as The Adamson Collection Trust archive.

Gwyneth Rowlands, Mother and Girl (verso), courtesy of Adamson Collection Trust

Mother and Girl (verso) by Gwyneth Rowlands. Image credit: Adamson Collection Trust.

Around 5,500 pieces of the original collection survive today, assembled together as the Adamson Collection: one of the major bodies of British ‘asylum art’.

The film is narrated by an unseen cataloguer, voiced by Iain Sinclair, who comments on key works in the collection and provides glimpses into the lives of their creators. Blending archive, reconstruction, 35mm rostrum photography, interviews and observational footage, the film explores the transformation of the objects in the Adamson Collection from clinical material to therapeutic tools to revered art objects, examining the changing contexts in which the objects were produced and displayed.

Between 1996 and 2012 most of the artworks were stored in a disused shower room at Lambeth Hospital in South London, not the best place from a conservation point of view, for an art collection. The act of moving these ‘abandoned goods’ to the Wellcome Library stacks becomes pivotal for the filmmakers: the point in time when the meaning assigned to the objects starts shifting dramatically. This is perfectly captured in the scene filmed in a cramped hospital room, as the French-speaking curator (whose face we do not see and who, as we later learn from the credits, is Sarah Lombardi, Director of Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne) is stunned by painted flints by Gwyneth Rowlands, one of the Adamson Collection artists, as they are being taken out of plain carton boxes.

Dr David O’Flynn, Consultant Psychiatrist at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust  (SLaM) and Chair of Adamson Collection Trust, said:

“I am thrilled that this film has received such international recognition at its first screening. Ed and Pia have made a film which is beautiful, intelligent, challenging. They have captured the complexity of the works in the Adamson Collection: as clinical material, historical artefacts, works of art.”

The film evokes the untold  story of the lives of those compelled to live in asylums after the war – and shows the beauty of the works of art they created in these bleak circumstances movingly. It will help bring Edward Adamson and the Adamson Collection to a wider public.

The ultimate transformation in the film takes place as the works of artist ‘JJ Beegan’, executed with a charred matchstick on toilet paper, get exhibited in the prestigious gallery Halle Saint Pierre in Paris. Gallery Director Martine Lusardy is delighted on the rare occasion of welcoming a new creator to the apparently well-established canon of art brut.

Edward Adamson saw the unrelenting creativity against the odds of the Netherne patients he was working with as a distinctly human characteristic. It is incredibly moving to see those who created art in Adamson’s studios of a post-war UK asylum, and who back then were not even allowed to keep their works due to hospital regulations, being given their due place in the world.

You can watch Abandoned Goods at the BFI London Film Festival on Monday 13 October.

Author: Anna Ostrowska is a library assistant at the Wellcome Library.



Anna Ostrowska

Anna Ostrowska is a Library Assistant at the Wellcome Library.

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