Can You Help Discover the History of Patient Creativity at St James’ Hospital?

Image credit Emily Turner.

Local writer and historian Emily Turner was inspired by the recent Edward King exhibition at Portsmouth City Museum and is running her own research project exploring the creativity of patients in mental health institutions. She would like to include St James’ Hospital here in Portsmouth – can you help?

No matter how much you think you might know about Portsmouth’s heritage, there are always more stories to discover about our city.

Such was the case for me with one Edward King, a local artistic luminary known for documenting the desecration laid to Portsmouth during the Second World War.

I stumbled across King on a trip to Portsmouth City Museum, which is currently showcasing a series of paintings by King. Edward King: A Life in Art exhibits some truly beautiful and skilled works, and I highly recommend paying a visit before the showcase closes at the end of the year.

The ‘Blitz paintings’ room at Portsmouth City Museum. Photo credit Emily Turner.

One room of the exhibition is dedicated to King’s ‘Blitz paintings’. He was asked to record the damage caused by the heavy bombings devastating Portsmouth during the Second World War, particularly during January in 1941, which caused widespread destruction and high civilian casualties. Determined to faithfully record the damage to his city, King painted quickly in the outdoors to capture the bombed buildings before they were demolished,  painting during air raids and even hiding works behind church altars so he could collect and finish them later.

As a historian and writer King as an artist is interesting to me for several reasons – firstly, the high quality of his work (which was clearly inspired by painters such as Pissarro), the decades he spent documenting my home city throughout the first half of the twentieth century, and, finally, his position as a ‘patient artist’.

Cabbage Patch in the Farm at St James’ Hospital, Edward King. Photo by Emily Turner.

Following his life as a successful professional painter who exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy, King was admitted to St James’ infirmary after a mental breakdown following the death of his wife. He continued to paint while hospitalised, remaining in St James’ until he passed away in 1951 at the age of 88.

King’s story and body of work is particularly relevant to my own research for my current heritage project, which is looking at ‘outsider art’ and patient creativity within mental health institutions (which were, of course, originally known as ‘asylums’).

Specifically, I’m attempting to locate patient publications produced in mental health institutions between 1850 and 1950. By ‘patient publication’, I mean pamphlets, magazines, journals, leaflets and any similar sort of creative material which was made by those who lived or were treated at mental health hospitals, institutions or asylums during this period. These publications contain a wide variety of creative content, from short stories to woodblock prints to poetry to cartoons.

Front cover of Under the Dome, Bethlem Hospital’s patient publication. Photo by Emily Turner.

As I’ve been hunting through archives and online databases for these publications, a world of patient creativity has revealed itself – and although I originally thought the earliest magazines dated to around 1900, I’ve been surprised at exactly how far back some of them date. As long ago as 1837, in fact, a mental health patient created a periodical about his life at Connecticut’s Hartford Retreat. Since then, teams of service users at hospitals across the world have worked with members of staff to create magazines, journals and pamphlets about patient life within sanatoria or ‘asylums’.

Front cover of The Hydra, Craiglockhart War Hospital’s patient publication. Photo by Emily Turner.

To create publications, patients needed permission and resources provided by hospital staff. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century, a new healthcare philosophy emerged and evolved: mental health professionals began to emphasize the importance of creativity in recovery and care. What we would today identify as occupational therapy, this process of ‘cure by functioning’ saw the hospitals encouraging patients to remain active. Ideas such as ‘moral therapy’ and ‘ergotherapy’ became the order of the day, emphasizing that patients should be able to take exercise, keep jobs on site at the hospital, have access to recreation, and be able to express their creativity. As hospital staff encouraged patients to get creative as part of their treatment, a variety of forms of media were produced in asylum environments, including painting, printing, textiles artwork such as knitting, and all forms of written work, including poetry.

Front cover of Cheshire Smile, Le Court care home’s patient publication. Photo by Emily Turner.

Originally founded as the Portsmouth Borough Lunatic Asylum, St James’ was built between 1875 and 1879 and was designed to operate as a self-sufficient unit. The grounds, including a dairy, laundry, brewery and farm, were worked by patients. We can see therefore that ‘ergotherapy’, specifically in the form of employment, was also used at St James’, and these activities were captured and recorded in painting by Edward King during his time at the hospital. The artist spent 25 years at the institution, which was set in extensive grounds tended by patients as part of their treatment. King had been an artist before he was hospitalised, meaning he had a very different background to most of the patients who contributed to patient publications, or explored their creativity as part of their recovery in mental health hospitals. Most patients had backgrounds in other industries and lines of work, or may have struggled with employment.

I’m interested in finding out more about the creative culture at St James’ Hospital, and learning what ergotherapy was like for patients other than King. I’m currently trying to find out whether or not the hospital ever had its own patient publication.

A View of the Laundry, St James’ Hospital, Portsmouth, Edward King. Photo by Emily Turner.

If you have had any experience working with patient publications of any kind, in Portsmouth or further afield, I’d love to hear from you. Whether you are a historian, a creative type, an ex or current service user, mental health staff, an occupational therapist or just interested in history and/or mental health and you have a story about patient creativity you’d like to share, please do get in contact.

As well as examples of patient publications or any other form of patient creativity, I’m also hunting for photographs, other material objects, and the memories, knowledge or stories of anyone who may have worked with or on these projects.

There are lots of lost histories to uncover and stories that deserve to be told. I think that these creative voices are important and should not be forgotten. In an era fraught with cuts to mental health services and declining support for the arts, I think that this is an important part of history for us to commemorate and, more importantly, to learn from.

Contact me at for more information or if you can help.

All photography by Emily Turner.