Yesterday, I visited Portsmouth Museum. I grew up in the area and still live nearby, so I’ve spent many an hour meandering through its galleries. After a particularly dreadful mental health dip, my mother (and fellow history/art enthusiast) shepherded me back down to check out the museum’s current temporary exhibition, which focuses on the work of local artist Edward King.
Portsmouth Museum’s Edward King: a life in art exhibition showcases some truly beautiful and serene works, and I highly recommend paying a visit before the showcase closes in January (it’s free to enter and also there’s parking).
King, who was born in 1863, began painting at the age of five, later selling his watercolours on Tottenham Court Road. Along with his brother, Gunning, he was sent to Leipzig to study music and art, and upon his return to England, he studied at the Slade School of Art. Here, he met Walter Sickert and James Abbott McNeill Whistler. A successful professional artist, King was awarded a bronze medal after exhibiting his first painting at the International Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in 1880, and went on to exhibit regularly at the Royal Academy. A member of the New English Art Club, King’s works were hung in the Paris Salon between 1911 and 1914.
I found the museum’s exhibition fascinating not only as a collection of artwork documenting my hometown in the first half of the twentieth century, along with a selection of objects chosen to highlight the cultural and material culture of Portsmouth in the years between 1920 and 1951. The work of King, who was admitted to St James’ infirmary after a mental breakdown and continued to paint while hospitalised, is particularly relevant to my own research for my thesis-project, which is looking at ‘outsider art’ and patient creativity within the context of mental health institutions or ‘asylums’.
Edward King is a ‘patient artist’, but perhaps a very different one from the creative types who worked on many of the patient-produced magazines and journals I study for my thesis-project. King was an established artist before his admission to St James, so he perhaps is best aligned with artists such as Richard Dadd and Charles Altamont Doyle, other institutionalised mental health patients who held careers as artists before their sanatorium admissions. Due to this key difference between their professional experiences and those of their fellow patients, it is difficult to determine whether creatives such as King can be deemed ‘outsider artists’. Does their privileged training, education, and access to the professional artistic sphere separate them from the ‘outsider art’ mode? Or are their experiences as patients, ‘othered’ both psychologically and physically from wider society, the determination of their outsider artist status?
As a professional artist, King was asked by Lady Daly, the Lady Mayoress, and Dr Beaton, head of St James’ Hospital, 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. He was allowed to visit the bombed areas with a hospital attendant, painting quickly in the outdoors to capture the damaged buildings before they were demolished. He demonstrated a real commitment to authentically capturing the devastation, painting during air raids and even hiding works behind church altars so he could collect and finish them later. I was struck by the warmth of King’s palette in this series of paintings, the umber and peach tones very unlike the Portsmouth I know, which is grey from sky to sea to structure. It was only upon reading the information panels that accompany this series did I realise that the warmness of these paintings were not the reflections of the sun, but the aftermath of flame: King’s ‘fascination with the burnt bricks is reflected in the earthy tones that characterize his paintings’.
The context of war when considering King’s work is particularly interesting. In my thesis-project, I am looking at The Hydra, a series of patient magazines produced at Craiglockhart War Hospital during the first world war. A pioneering institution for soldiers suffering from shell shock, medical professionals at Craiglockhart emphasised ergotherapy, or ‘cure by functioning’, wherein patients were required to stay active in employment and recreation as a key part of their recovery. The Hydra was contributed to by well known war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, the later being directly encouraged by his doctor to edit the paper, as well as contribute his poetic endeavours. To read King in context with the war poets highlights a range of interesting questions to which I don’t have answers yet. Both Sassoon and Owen used the poetic form to capture and respond to their experiences of war, a method mirrored by King’s efforts to capture the impact bombing had upon his city. Although both creatives striving to immortalise the impact of the first and second world wars, there are key differences between the war poets and artists such as King. Firstly, medical context: Owen and Sassoon entered Craiglockhart under the condition of shell shock, their experiences of mental health treatment and creative-orientated ergotherapy shaped by warfare and time spent fighting in the trenches. The hospitalisation of King, who was admitted to St James’ in 1926 after his wife passed away, is unrelated to war. Does this impact upon how we should approach, analyse or understand Owen/Sassoon and King’s creative responses to conflict? This difference in perspective can be further understood by examining the differences in focus: the war poets’ work is inward-looking, analysing the self and the psychological impact of war, whereas King’s paintings are almost communal, examining damage to local infrastructure and landscape. In fact, by the 1940s, he seems to have become a familiar figure in the Milton Locks, where he made regular unsupervised visits to paint the shoreline and houseboats, often giving away is paintings to local people (his works are in many homes in Portsmouth today – although sadly not mine). His work in this role as ‘community artist’ is almost voyeuristic, as he journeys out the asylum to create his paintings – he is a geographical and social outsider, if not, as I’ve mentioned above, a classic ‘outsider artist’. The work of Sassoon, who had a career as a poet before his service during the war, just as King was a professional painter, is perhaps best examined in future analysis as separate from Owen in this juxtaposition of war creatives – Owen, who came to write poetry as a result of his ergotherapy at Craiglockhart, is perhaps an outsider artist in the ‘truest’ sense. In addition to this, King, who lived and worked at St James’ until his death in 1951 at the age of 88, will create work informed by this institutional context, whereas Sassoon and Owen returned to active service.
Ergotherapy as used at Craiglockhart was also employed at St James’, and was captured and recorded by King during his time at the hospital. The artist spent 25 years at the institution, also known as the Borough of Portsmouth Lunatic Asylum (built 1875), which was set in extensive grounds. These were tended by patients as part of their treatment, and the grounds included a dairy, laundry, brewery and farm. King, whose movements were restricted by nature of his institutionalisation, painted these grounds and the surrounding area, often returning to the same views again and again.
I felt like King’s work displayed a tenderness for St James – unlike earlier examples of patient artwork I’ve examined, which often communicate anger and confusion, the world King depicts is almost idyllic. His portrayal of the laundry and farm, places were patients would have been employed as part of their therapy, are gentle landscape scenes, depicting a peaceful atmosphere with serene skies, dense foliage, a few animals, and little human presence. As one of the information plaques at the exhibition points out, King’s ‘studies of haystacks and poplar trees revisit subjects explored by Monet and Pissarro fifty years earlier’. These paintings communicate King’s optimistic look on asylum life as a simple but pleasing rural existence, the land faithfully worked by the patient farmhands but with little entrapment of modern machinery.
Last night I went along to Southsea Castle to see the truly excellent Cure or Be Cured event – an evening of poetry, music and immersive theatre inspired by the Plague Doctors who worked to cure sufferers of the Black Plague in the fourteenth century – and oddly, one act, Will Sutton, performed a song about Edward King. This was actually very touching and quite beautiful to be heard performed live in the courtyard at Southsea Castle. You can listen to the whole ‘Edward King’ song at Will’s SoundCloud here: https://soundcloud.com/william-george-sutton, as well as his excellent ‘Victorian Diagnoses’, which looks at some of the bizarre reasons noted for patients’ admission to asylums during the nineteenth century. I think I’ll end this post with Will’s lovely final lyrics about the artist: ‘The wartime painter known to everyone, there goes old Edward King/ the bombs are gone, but still the paintings sing’.