Provocative Objects / Spaces

13 July 2023 -

Provocative Objects: Surrey County Asylum Photography

Hugh Welch Diamond’s photography of female patients at Surrey County Asylum, as seen below, document women suffering from one, or multiple, mental diagnoses. The nineteenth century saw an expansion of mental illness diagnoses and an increase of 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.

By 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 figure 4, 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.’[i] 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.’[ii]

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[iii]. 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.’[iv] 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.

I question the involvement of Diamond in portraying the mentally ill in these images. Particularly because, in this period, women were subjugated to immense oppression and silencing. As documented by Mary Wollstonecraft who unpacked this in an unfinished novel Maria, or, The Wrongs of Woman (1797) which was intended to be a sequel to her political treatise A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. The protagonist of Wollstonecraft’s novel, ‘Maria’, has been commuted to the asylum by her husband who now controlled her wealth, body, and self.[v] The novel seeks to dismantle the perceptions of marriage in the eighteenth century and speaks to the oppression of women in this period. The important part of this novel in relation to Diamond’s work is Wollstonecraft’s employment of the asylum as an oppressive, dangerous, confining space. If this is a contemporary perception of the asylum from a female voice and narration, then we must take that with a seriousness and observe the presence of corruption clear in Diamond’s photography. Women made up the majority of public lunatic asylums in the nineteenth century and in the twentieth century, ‘we know that women are the majority of clients for private and public health services, and psychotherapy; in 1967 a major study found “more mental illness among women than men from every data source”.’[vi] However, we should not fail to recognise that the very system in which we dwell is not created for the female to thrive.

A contemporary re-reading of the female position in the nineteenth century suggests that women are ‘situated on the side of irrationality, silence, nature, and body, while men are situated on the side of reason, discourse, culture, and mind.’ And, isn’t that the case with these photographs? Diamonds, photography embodies this duality and physically represents the male subversion of the female body through photographic means. Furthermore, the silencing of the mentally unwell female is further exemplified through the lack of documentation, explanation, or delicacy of subject depicted in and around the creation of these photographs. Through photography physiognomy Diamond is attempting to reason and rationalise conditions he would ever unlikely fathom or comprehend as he is situated on the ‘right side of reason’ -where the female is not.

A further provocative aspect of these images lies in the continuation of the silencing of these female voices. The images of these articles are sourced from two incredibly influential institutions; The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Victoria and Albert Museum. In particular figures 1 and 2, the more expressive of the four, is simply described as ‘sepia-tone photograph depicting a woman looking head on at the camera with wide eyes and a half-smile.’ There is no contextualisation that the woman is a patient in an asylum and that the photograph has been taken by someone attempting to treat her condition. Or, in the case of The Met, the description of figures 3 and 4 vastly focus on Diamond’s practice and further silences the condition and histories of the women. I raise this point as our perception and understanding of such issues are deeply influenced by the media and culture that we consume. As noted by Jennifer Eisenhauer, the visual culture in which we consume affects us in ways we may not even notice or understand. Eisenhauer raises that ‘our own perceptions of mental illness can easily be informed by what we see, read, and hear in popular media […] Art education can become an important site through which to challenge these issues of stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination[vii]’. Indeed, ‘art educators can identify disparaging terms, the misuse of psychiatric terms, and problematic forms of naming, that have become accepted as part of everyday language.’[viii] Thus art educators need to acknowledge that the continuation of such silencing is only further endorsing an archaic and antiquated understanding of mental illness, medical treatment and silencing of female voices and histories. I believe that there should be a greater sympathy for the subject matter of such photography and an understanding in the description of these photographs. I wish to recognise that these women were likely vulnerable, unwell individuals, who were likely posed. I have suggested that Diamond wanted to present a curated image of “insanity” and mental illness, though we will never be able to confirm this. However, I firmly advocate that in the descriptions of these images this aspect is overlooked and should be recognised.

Figure 1: ‘Portrait of a Patient’, c.1855, Hugh Welch Diamond FSA FRPS (Dr), Victoria and Albert Museum Collection, Department of Photography [RPS.2966-2017].
Figure 2: ‘Portrait of a Patient’, c.1855, Hugh Welch Diamond FSA FRPS (Dr), Victoria and Albert Museum Collection, Department of Photography [RP2472-2017].
Figure 4: ‘Portrait of a Female Patient, Surrey County Asylum’, ca.1850-1858, Hugh Welch Diamond, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, [2005:100.812]].


[i] ‘Patient, Surrey County Lunatic Asylum’, The Metropolitan Museum of Art,
Gilman Collection, Purchasem Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H.Lee Gift (2005), available at:
[ii] 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).
[iii]Paul Gallagher, ‘Documenting Madness: Female Patients of the Surrey County Lunatic Asylum’. Dangerous Minds, (2015), available at:
[iv] Sharrona Pearl, ‘Through a Mediated Mirror: The Photographic Physiognomy of Hugh Welch Diamond’, History of Photography, vol.33.3, pp.288-305 (p.4-5), (
[v] Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady Women, Madness, and English Culture 1830 – 1980, (Penguin 1985) p.1 – 220 (p.1).
[vi] Ibid, (p.3.
[vii] 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.17).
[viii] Ibid, (p.15).

Figure 1:
[Accession Number: RPS.2966 -2017], photograph ‘Portrait of a Patient’, c.1855, The Victoria and Albert Museum, available at: [accessed 1 February 2023].
Figure 2:
[Accession Number: RPS.2472-20217], photograph ‘Portrait of a Patient’, c.1855, The Victoria and Albert Museum , available at: [accessed 1 February 2023].
Figure 3:
[Accession Number: 2005.100.812], photograph ‘Patient, Surrey County Lunatic Asylum’, c.1850-55, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, available at: [accessed 1 February 2023].
Figure 4:
[Accession Number: 2005.100.19], photograph ‘Patient, Surrey County Lunatic Asylum’, c.1850-58, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, available at: [accessed 1 February 2023].

Evangeline Rouse, MA History of Design student at the Royal College of Art/Victoria and Albert Museum


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