Evolution of Asylum Patient Photography

.Following the formal procedure of the AGM on the 6th July 2019, a talk followed.
This was presented by David Scrimgeour who is no stranger to our meetings. David had previously carried our research into the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum and the results were published in 2015 under the title of ‘Proper People.’ He subsequently became interested in the photographs of inmates and in their appearance. Many of these he was able to access from the archives in the West Yorkshire History Centre in Wakefield.
Some of the early pioneers in the evolution of photography included were Dr. H. W. Diamond in Surrey and the work he did at the Bethlam Asylum in London during the 1850s.These occurred in the 1850s. Such photos led to a belief that the appearance of the subjects could reveal the type of person they were. In other words, the belief in physiognomy.
Then there was W. C. Mackintosh based in Edinburgh. In one of his photographs of seven siblings he ‘cut and pasted’ and created a montage all the better to make assumptions about their appearances. Another Scot, Dr. James Crichton-Brown, in Yorkshire at the West Riding Lunatic Pauper Asylum whose work drew the attention of Charles Darwin. The latter used photos sent by Crichton-Brown in his research.
In the 1870s David noticed that photos taken during this period were taken against similar backgrounds such as plants growing up a brick wall. Then there were those where there is a plain background. However the real interest was in the inmates appearance ie facial expression, body language and clothes worn. Eventually as techniques in photography changed and improved, more and more patients appear in portraitures and these were kept in albums for easier access by the medical profession.
For family historians who may have had an ancestor in an asylum, the chances of coming across a photo after 1895 is good Before that date it becomes increasingly difficult.
David’s talk was both intriguing and enjoyable but one that also reflects the hours of research he had put into his work.