The Psychiatric Sublime
The rotatory chair was particularly advocated by Joseph Mason Cox, who owned a large private asylum near Bristol, and whose Practical Observations on Insanity contains some of the more flamboyant techniques to be recommended in the literature of the period. Cox suggested various elaborations on the use of the swinging chair; for instance, it might be ‘employed in the dark, where, from unusual noises, smells, or other powerful agents, acting forcibly on the senses, its efficacy might be amazingly increased’.13 For patients particularly resistant to such interventions, Cox recommended to the alienist an even more daring strategy. If the patient could not be recalled from his or her world of sublime delusion, then the doctor must go in and get them. This meant acting up to the delusional drama, the doctor assuming a role within it.
As a coda I should like to jump forward to the 1860s and to one further image by a psychiatric patient facilitated by a doctor (fig.9). This is the certificate awarded by the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh to recipients of the Morison Prize, asylum attendants who had demonstrated humane attention to their patients over long periods of service.31 The award was named after Alexander Morison who had been another Bethlem physician and a patron of Bethlem’s most famous Victorian inmate, the painter Richard Dadd. In 1864 Dadd was moved to the new State Criminal Lunatic Asylum at Broadmoor from where he must have sent Morison the two pairs of designs used for the male and female versions of the certificates (fig.10). In each, an image from the Elizabethan stage forms the ‘before’, and a pair of calmly productive figures forms the ‘after’ – one of these is the patient and the other the attendant, but it is not at all clear which is which. Dadd’s designs appear to follow Victorian orthodoxy in celebrating the suppression of the lonely, sublime maniac and the patient’s entry into socialising moral therapy. But Dadd’s images seem also to prophesy the development within asylum medicine of the new genus of psychosis – the schizoid paradigm that was to inform the psychiatric profession, and the anti-psychiatry movements, of the twentieth century.32
A version of this paper was first presented at the conference The Sublime in Crisis: New Perspectives on the Sublime in British Visual Culture 1760–1900 held at Tate Britain in September 2009, organised by the AHRC-funded research project ‘The Sublime Object: Nature, Art and Language’.
How to cite
Nicholas Tromans, ‘The Psychiatric Sublime’, in Nigel Llewellyn and Christine Riding (eds.), The Art of the Sublime, Tate Research Publication, January 2013, https://www