One of the most poignant stories from Netherne Cemetery is that of Jean Barboni. He was an 8 year old who died in the hospital in 1915 and whose death haunted his nurse, Elizabeth Martin, for the rest of her life. Ms Martin’s niece, Edith Kelly, contacted her local paper to share her aunt’s memories and her own outrage at the then state of the cemetery. Elizabeth had shared her still vivid memories of Jean with Edith 30 years later after his death. She had devotedly nursed Jean who was born with what we would now call learning difficulties but then was classed as mentally defective. Edgard Barboni, his father, was an officer in the French army and a physicist engaged in top secret chemical warfare work during the First World War. They had had another little boy named Pierre and were finding it difficult to cope as Jean required specialist care. Eventually he was admitted as a private patient in a house for the ‘mentally subnormal’ as the Victorians classed him at Netherne. Edith discovered, through her aunt’s diaries that she had always felt that she had contributed to Jean’s death by allowing him to be put in a pauper hospital, Netherne, where he contracted TB. After Jean’s parents returned to France with Pierre Elizabeth tended Jean’s grave until her own death. Edith was quoted as saying
‘ For as long as I could remember, she regarded him as her own child. I suppose the emotional involvement must have been that much greater because the parents were in France and possibly never visited the grave again.’
As I left the cemetery and walked back around the border of the field again I noticed the large number of flints on the ground. I was tempted to take one home as a souvenir but it was too heavy. However, the local flints provided inspiration for a Netherne patient, Gwyneth Rowlands, who painted faces, usually of women directly onto the ones that she found in the fields around the hospital. She might have even found some in this very field.
Sadly, I could discover very little about Gwyneth, despite her work being on display at the Wellcome Collection recently. She was admitted as a patient in 1946 and stayed there for 35 years probably until it closed in the 1990’s. But on a recent visit to the Wellcome Collection Reading Room I spoke with one of the volunteers, Rock, who told me that Gwyneth may still be alive and she had been in contact with a staff member up until 3 or 4 years ago. She is considered to be part of the Outsider art movement. Gwyneth’s technique was to paint directly onto the flint using watercolour, indian ink and varnish.
Art therapy which subsequently became part of the Outsider or Art Brut movement began at Netherne in 1948 when the pioneering Edward Adamson (1911-1996) became the first artist to be employed full time as an Art Director.
He formed a huge collection of over 4000 pieces of artwork which is now housed at The Wellcome Collection in London. He believed that the creation of art was a healing process especially for those who could not speak or express themselves in any other way. However, Adamson wasn’t a teacher or someone who used the artworks as a diagnostic tool. Instead his approach was as a facilitator artist. He worked at Netherne until his retirement in 1981. Art therapy was also called ‘psychiatric art’ . The Outsider Art movement is concerned with artists who are outside the mainstream, usually self-taught and often living within institutions. It often has no meaning except to the artist themselves although the raw power and emotion of some of these artworks can be really impressive as with Gwyneth’s flint heads.
As I walked over the top of Farthing Downs later on that afternoon heading for Sunday afternoon tea and cakes at Chaldon church I saw the cemetery on the opposite slope. I hoped that it would always be surrounded by large green fields and that its incumbents would always rest in peace under the chestnut trees and wildflowers.
©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.
Outsider Art: From the Margins to te Marketplace, David Maclagan Reaktion Books 2009
Art as Healing, Edward Adamson, Coventure 1984