Vawdrey project diary: Session four

After the visit to the Wellcome collection for our last session, the Vawdrey project group were once again back at West Sussex Record Office (WSRO) in Chichester for workshop number four. It was time for the second viewing of original artwork, following on from looking at the compelling paintings of ‘Case 1’ and ‘Case 2’ before Christmas – see artist Jennifer Milarski-Stermsek’s diary on that HERE. Lead archivist for the project Joanna McConville tells more.

Sam, Vawdrey session 4

Outside In artist and project participant Sam McGann with some of the artwork

The Case 1 and 2 pieces comprise around a third of the Vawdrey archive; the remainder of the material consists of a diverse set of paintings and sketches dating from 1950s-1970s, created by patients of Dr Vawdrey’s during his years working at Chichester’s Graylingwell Hospital. There is generally more mystery around this set of works, the greater proportion of which are anonymous*, in contrast with considerable amount of background information we have on ‘Case 1’ and ‘Case 2’ thanks to Dr Vawdrey’s M.D. thesis which we also have as part of the archive.

The thesis includes full case histories and commentary on the artwork the two produced, including not only Dr Vawdrey’s analysis of the work, but also the patients’ own words on what they were seeking to express through their art. All of this means that we have far more of an insight into the Case 1 and 2 works, and can build a more detailed picture of their experience, than in the case of the rather more elusive Graylingwell paintings.

After starting with a catch up discussion fuelled by the ubiquitous supply of WSRO biscuits, the artists moved to the Record Office searchroom where the paintings were laid out for perusal. As in our earlier session, little prior explanation was given in order that the artists could get their first impressions the work as ‘unfettered’ as possible – although of course that can be hard to achieve completely, given our knowledge of where the paintings came from. As I’ve been working with the archive for a few months now these works are beginning to feel quite familiar to me, and it’s really fascinating as an observer to witness the artist group seeing them for the first time, and the different reactions they provoke.

As Jenny expressed so honestly in her blog post, seeing the work of Case 1 and Case 2 was an emotional, challenging experience for many in the group; in the case of this second set of artwork reactions were perhaps more varied. The subject matter of some of the pieces was extremely disturbing and evoked difficult and troubling memories for some; other works, in contrast, were seen as having a decidedly comical side (although undoubtedly still representing the expression of serious feelings). This was particularly the case with a distinctive set of works incorporating bold, ‘cartoonish’ images with written captions.

As well as being amused by (and rather agreeing with!) such elements as a set of imaginary ‘Rules and Regulations’ for monitoring doctors’ behaviour and attitudes to patients, several of the artists noted the surprisingly literal and self-aware nature of these pictures. With overt references to, for example, the sub-conscious and regression, there was speculation over the extent to which the content of these paintings was influenced and fed directly by the doctor’s understanding of psychoanalytic thought and their interpretation of the patient’s condition.

As ever, discussions were lively, engaged and far-ranging, encompassing personal experience, artistic style and influences, questions of ownership and copyright and doctor-patient power dynamics, as well as the kinds of language and terminology that might be used to create descriptions for the works in our catalogue. I was again struck forcibly by how our group of artists have the ability to cut straight to the heart of the matter and their level of insight into the complex and contradictory ethical questions which a collection of this kind throws up. Such insight will be invaluable in the coming weeks, as we think about how to approach the cataloguing of this work and to consider further the ways in which the Vawdrey archive might be used and accessed in the future.

*Two artist names are recorded on the work and through research in the Graylingwell archive they have been identified as patients at the hospital during the 1960s; however no further information on their cases have been found.

More about the Vawdrey Archieve Project, including artist profiles and diaries from previous sessions, can be found HERE

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