This piece sought to draw attention to the photographs held in the V&A collection of unnamed and unknown women receiving treatment at Surrey County Asylum. Read on for the introduction of this piece:
Hugh Welch Diamond’s photography of female patients at Surrey County Asylum documents women suffering currently suffering from one, or multiple, mental diagnoses. The nineteenth century saw an expansion of mental illness diagnoses and an increase in asylum admittance, with reasons for admittance ranging from religious obsession, “hysteria” (a now firmly antiquated term), nervous dispositions and malady. Regarding the women in Diamond’s photography, their illnesses remain a mystery and little to no information exists other than their interactions with Diamond.
In discussing these photographs, I hope to bring forth an alternative reading of these women and suggest a multiplicity to the function of these photographs in medical practice. As depicted in the accompanying image, a patient is capture with a slight smile; an expression that we often associate with pleasantry and happiness, yet, there is an ambiguity to her smile. I immediately began to question the curation of this photograph and the role of the photographer behind this image as well as the presentation of a smile that expresses an alleged pleasantry. The text accompanying this image, found in the Metropolitan Museum of art collection, suggests that ‘because the image is not annotated the viewer may, like the metaphysician, muse on whether the woman’s engaging but ambiguous smile and almost cocky pose denote a state of madness, a return to health, or a challenge to society’s parameters of sanity.’  The text suggests an autonomy of the patient in presenting herself in a certain fashion or light. Yet, there is no mention or allusion that, perhaps, Diamond orchestrated or posed his subjects to align with his own philosophies regarding mental illness. Diamond advocated a presenting relationship between physiognomy, a person’s facial features or expression, and their mental state and/or illness. Diamond, an early adoptee and enthusiast of photography, photographed these women between 1848 until 1855; a time in which the birth of photography and adoption of the photograph in medicine acts as ‘part of the visual culture of mental illness and represents a desire to identify and control mental illness through its visual identification.’ With this in mind, we witness the beginning of a present visual culture in presenting and documenting curated mental illness through photography. Yet, with this, we must also consider the manipulation of the subject within these images for a manipulated outcome. As an advocate of physiognomy, it is not unlikely that Diamond would be keen to present evidence and findings of his beliefs. Furthermore, Diamond believed photography could be used and aid the diagnosis and treatment of the mentally ill. Key to Diamond’s practice is his following of ‘physiognomics’; a theory that disease and character could be recognised from an individual’s features or physiognomy. Diamond’s practice was conducted with the preconception that diagnosis led to cure and recovery. Diamond suggested that if a patient was confronted with their illness, then the self-reflection required to recognise the illness would inevitably result in an alleviation of symptoms and eventually in full recovery. ‘For Diamond, cure emerged from acknowledgement of insanity and […] Madness developed out of a schism between the way patients appeared and the way they thought they looked.
In this Diamond pushed physiognomical principles in a dramatically new direction.’ I would suggest that there is a third layer that situates Diamond’s perception of the depiction of ‘madness’ and the way they thought he should appear.
To read more of this blogpost please keep an eye out on the Design History Society Blog in the upcoming months.
 ‘Patient, Surrey County Lunatic Asylum’, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gilman Collection, Purchase Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H.Lee Gift (2005). Available here: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/283091
 Jennifer Eisenhauer, ‘A Visual Culture of Stigma: Critically Examining Representations of Mental Illness’, Art Education, vol.61.5 (National Art Education Association: September 2008), pp.13-18 (p.15).
 Paul Gallagher, ‘Documenting Madness: Female Patients of the Surrey County Lunatic Asylum’. Dangerous Minds, (2015). Available here: https://dangerousminds.net/comments/documenting_madness_female_patients_of_the_surrey_county_lunatic_asylum
 Sharrona Pearl, ‘Through a Mediated Mirror: The Photographic Physiognomy of Hugh Welch Diamond’, History of Photography, 33:3 (2009): 288-305 (pp.4-5). Available here: https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/80576324.pdf