Beckenham: Outsider Art movement pioneered by Bethlam Hospital for more than a century

PUBLISHED: 12:07 24 September 2012

Bethlem gallery curator Beth Elliot

Bethlem gallery curator Beth Elliot


My paintings reflect tortuously working my way through life, from the perspective of an adult survivor.” These are the words of artist Terence Wilde, who would have once been marginalised by those who walked the halls of famous art schools, like so many artists on the periphery of past societies.

Outsider Art, or Asylum Art, a new genre was unlocked in the 19th century to showcase art in its purest form − created by people like hospital patients for satisfaction, over notoriety or financial gain.

At the heart of this movement was The Royal Bethlem Hospital, Beckenham, responsible for curating the first exhibition of Outsider Art in 1900. Artists ranged from psychiatric patients to mediums and individualists, though today the spectrum has become wider incorporating most people without classic training. Opened in 1997, The Bethlem Gallery continues the legacy with exhibitions held by patients or those who have been treated there.

The artwork can play a pivotal role in recovery for many patients, according to co-ordinator Beth Eliott, 32, who says she is constantly blown away by the quality.

“This might sound a little bit dramatic but many of our artists do talk about it being something that helps them survive,” she said.

“It gives people a chance to get away from the wards which can be quite draining and give them the ability to express themselves or focus on something other.

“One of our artists talks about his triangle of well-being. That is his art, medication and therapy. If you take one away, the rest won’t work.”

For artists like Terence Wilde, who exhibited his work at the gallery in 2005, the creativity of art can be a healing tool. He claims that his work has allowed him to feel comfortable in his own skin and begin to feel healthier.

The ability to focus on a project can often provide a sense of worth that drives patients who can often be out of work as a result of their psychiatric care.

One artist, who wished to be known simply as Sue, claims it is important as a channel for creativity and expressing ideas that patients may feel restricted from saying out loud. She said: “Art is hugely beneficial everywhere, in care and once you are out. Being able to work on something and have these processes going on are really valuable things. Exhibiting stuff gives you the impetus to carry on.

“Medication is less stifling than it used to be and the whole idea of having no contact with the art world is impossible today because of the internet, so the boundaries for what Outsider Art is has shifted.”

There is around a four-year wait to hold a solo exhibition at Bethlem Gallery, demonstrating the wealth of work generated.

Though art therapy is commonly used in hospitals to help patients overcome traumas, Beth says it’s rare for these deeply personal images to be revealed in exhibitions.

She said: “We do have art therapists and an intensive process that is extremely personal. It constantly amazes me the role that creativity can play in people’s lives. Finding positives in the things they have been through to achieve these incredible things keeps me doing what I do.”

The gallery’s current exhibition is by Ronald, titled Outside In. Free, it runs until tomorrow and is open from 11am to 6pm.

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