Vawdrey project diary: Session one

West Sussex Records Office and Outside In artists have begun work on the Vawdrey Archive Project, here lead archivist for the project Joanna McConville provides her diary from the first workshop session.

Monday 26 November marked the first official workshop session of the Vawdrey Archive Project. This is a partnership initiative between Outside In and West Sussex Record Office (WSRO), funded by Wellcome Trust and based around an archive of art therapy works produced by patients of Dr Brian Vawdrey, psychiatrist at the former Graylingwell Hospital, Chichester from 1954-c1987.

West Sussex Record Office

The records office

After a preliminary training day on November 16, this was where the project began in earnest, and it was great to welcome our group of artists, many of whom had made a substantial trek over to Chichester to join us. As the place of deposit for the ‘Vawdrey’ artworks, the Record Office is to be the venue for most of the early sessions in the project in order to enable the artists to view the fragile original paintings in controlled conditions.

The idea behind this first session was to introduce the artists to the work of the Record Office and to help them to gain some background understanding of archives more generally, helping to open up and shed light on a world which can be perceived as somewhat obscure and closed off. Promoting wider awareness and access to archives is a huge part of what WSRO does, and is also very much at the heart of the Vawdrey Project.

The day began with a catch up over tea and coffee, with several of the artists sharing work inspired by the project so far; it was amazing for me to see how even at this early stage the themes around the Vawdrey Archive have captured the artists’ imagination. This was followed by a short presentation, and discussion around the question of ‘What is an archive?’ While there is an understanding that archives are documents and records selected for permanent preservation, it is worth knowing that the questions of why archives are valuable, how they are used and how we make decisions about what we keep are the topics of plenty of healthy debate within the profession.

In times gone by, paintings by psychiatric patients like those in the Vawdrey Archive might not have been kept – indeed the rarity of the artworks is part of what makes our project so important in providing insight into the development of art therapy and capturing the voices of a group of people whose experience might otherwise never have been represented in the historical record.

Record Offfice Strong Rooms

The records office strong rooms

Following this was a tour of the Record Office, including a behind the scenes peek at some of the places the public doesn’t usually see, such as the conservation area where documents are repaired and the strongrooms where we store everything from parish registers to family papers to 19th century tithe maps so vast they need three people to carry them! It was also a chance for the artists to get a first tantalising glimpse of a few of the Vawdrey paintings.

After lunch came another presentation and a first look at the process of cataloguing – something we hope the artists will be closely involved with during the project. We talked about archival cataloguing and the important of the concepts of provenance and original order – ensuring that collections are grouped according to their ‘creator’. This led to some interesting discussions around the notion of the ‘creator’ in relation to the Vawdrey Archive – is it, for example, right that Vawdrey’s is the name attached to the collection? Does this disenfranchise the artists who actually produced the work? A counter point to this was raised by the question asked by one of the artists: ‘Would these paintings have been created without Vawdrey?’ While Vawdrey himself was not the artist, they were produced in the course of his art therapy sessions and on his request; moreover it was he who made the decision to keep these artworks in the long term. So perhaps in a sense he does, at least, have a contributing role in their creation?

The next session will be on Monday 17 December, where we will be ‘unveiling’ some of the paintings fully for the first time… Check back here to see how that goes. To read more about the project, how it has been made possible and the involvement of Outside In artists with lived mental health experiences, click HERE

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