West Sussex Record Office and Outside In have been awarded a grant from the Wellcome Trust of £46,000 to preserve a historical archive of artwork created during art therapy sessions run by Dr Brian Vawdrey between 1951 to 1971. Laura Miles interviews Project Coordinator, Rachel Johnston, to tell the story of how the archive came to Outside In’s attention in bin bags full of artwork.
“It was a day that had been planned, we had all these activities and then all of a sudden I heard this shout ‘Rachel come here!’… It was startling in a fantastic way.”
That is how Rachel Johnston recalls the moment she first set eyes on a remarkable collection of artwork created by former patients of the West Sussex County Asylum.
It was 2014 and at a special launch event, held in Priory Park, Chichester, which had been put on to tell the wider community about a year-long Heritage Lottery Funded project to uncover the history of the Graylingwell Hospital.
“We were just talking about the project and introducing it to the community when Alan, who is the son of Dr Vawdrey, just came in with two bin bags. “He said ‘I don’t know if you are interested in this’,” Rachel reveals. “I think the moment we got it out of the bag people were gasping, we just looked at it and thought oh my god – this is amazing – it was that instant.”
Dr Vawdrey had been the senior registrar at Graylingwell from 1954 to 1985 and along with the art collection his family also had a dissertation he’d written on art therapy.
The exhibition which followed – organised by Outside In at Pallant House Gallery – attracted widespread attention and now, following an award of £46,000 from the Wellcome Trust to the West Sussex Record Office and Outside In, a project got underway towards the end of 2018, engaging artists and archivists working to preserve and respond to, the artwork.
“The whole point has been to recruit artists who have lived experiences of mental health issues so they can bring their own unique experience to the archiving,” explains Rachel. “Things like search terms are a big thing in archiving but not something you necessarily deal with as an artist. We have a good idea of where we are starting from but we don’t know where it is going to end up. I think that is a unique part of it, archiving usually follows rules but part of what we are doing is to make it not too prescriptive, make it accessible but to give different strands to it.”
With the work dating back to between 1951 to 1971, and key discussions regarding copyright – as to whether it lies with the creator – or whether the artwork should be seen as a form of treatment – the project is not without its challenges.
“Copyright is one of the conversations we had when the art was uncovered and we need to work on that. There is no straightforward answer. We can talk to art therapists about it, but their views will be contemporary, so it is an interesting dilemma,” she confesses.
“Even in the field of art therapy there are so many different perspectives. The view of Adamson, who was a famous collector and pioneer of art therapy, was that people should just make the art and that is therapeutic in its own right, whereas others would look at the art as symbolic ‘you have done that, which means I think you are telling me this’.
“With the Vawdrey project the point is to produce an archive that is alive and engaging,” she enthuses. “Hopefully this is going to be the start of something. There have been discussions about setting up a Europe-wide database and it could go further than that.”
Thankfully none of this fazes Rachel, who will be coordinating the project, instead she admits she sees it as a ‘buckle yourself in’ experience.
“It is really exciting. It is that unknown and so we have to hold on and see how it unravels,” she says.
The Vawdrey Archive comprises approximately 194 paintings produced by patients at Graylingwell Hospital and is an unusual record of early art therapy work which provides an important insight offering a unique historical perspective on the stories of survivors of the mental health system.
As an artist herself, Rachel has plenty of first-hand experience of seeing the power creativity can have in aiding people to talk.
“When you sit down and make with people, stories flow and I think it is really important for that to happen. I think the challenge is to get those stories out there and get people’s voices heard,” she says.
“When stories from the past and the present come together you want people to connect with it; it is sharing so that more people can talk about what it means to them and get rid of some of the prejudice which surrounds mental health. In the past there was shame associated with it and to a point there still is. That is the appeal of the project.”
The Vawdrey Project will run until June 2019. To follow the progress of the project you can visit the Vawdrey Project pages on the Outside In website where the eight artists engaged in the work will blog updates on the cataloguing, preservation and digitisation of the archive.