West Sussex Record Office

Summary of activity

The Vawdrey Archive at West Sussex Record Office (WSRO) comprises art works produced by patients in art therapy sessions run by Dr Brian Vawdrey. The works were created between 1951 and 1971 at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh and Graylingwell Hospital, Chichester, formerly the West Sussex County Asylum. The collection provides a valuable insight into the therapeutic process adopted by Vawdrey and a perspective on the development of art therapy as a discipline.

The Vawdrey Archive Project enabled the cataloguing, preservation and digitisation of this collection. WSRO delivered the project in partnership with Outside In, a national charity which aims to provide a platform for artists who face significant barriers due to health, disability, social circumstance, or isolation. The project challenged traditional approaches to cataloguing by inviting artists to interpret and develop catalogue descriptions for the art works. The project ran from September 2018 to January 2020 and was funded by the Wellcome Trust.

‘The work in the Vawdrey Archive has been removed from the patients who made it. What we are doing through this project is to reconnect it with people who are at some level representative of the artists that made the work. If a system or authority intervenes, be it only physically by placing the work in safe care, it continues the power dynamic of an authority removing or controlling the work and disenfranchises the artists, taking the work a step away from an important connection and relationship which is at the heart of the project. With this project we hope to create in the words of Solomon Szekir-Papasavva “a counter voice to the dominance of medical and professional perspectives of patients defined by their diagnoses.’

Art in the Asylum, Lancet Psychiatry, vol 5 May 2018.’ Outside In: Artist Consultation Statement of Intent, October 2018

Black and white photo of the entrance to the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh and Graylingwell Hospital, Chichester (formerly the West Sussex County Asylum)

Challenges and opportunities

In 2014, an event was held at Chichester’s Priory Park to engage the local community in the Graylingwell Heritage Project, a Heritage Lottery Funded project which explored the history of Graylingwell Hospital. At this event Alan Vawdrey, son of Dr Brian Vawdrey, arrived bearing a collection of approximately two hundred pieces of artwork. Dr Brian Vawdrey had been a consultant psychiatrist at Graylingwell Hospital for more than 30 years. The artworks had been created by patients in his care during art therapy sessions. Together with an illustrated copy of Dr Vawdrey’s 1953 M.D. thesis, ‘Art in Analysis’ the works were deposited by Alan Vawdrey at WSRO.

Following the deposit WSRO worked in partnership with Outside In to develop a project which would open up access to the archive through cataloguing, digitisation, preservation and outreach. A grant of £46,023 from the Wellcome Trust enabled the project.

The project included a series of consultation sessions which involved seven Outside In artists exploring the copyright, consent, interpretation, and cataloguing of the artworks. All of the participating artists had their own lived experience of mental health issues. The project team planned fifteen sessions to include a mid-point sharing event and a final event to show the cataloguing process and artworks. Sessions were structured incrementally to introduce the historical, artistic and therapeutic contexts for the artworks.

As a county archive and place of deposit for public records, WSRO is adept at addressing issues around confidentiality, data protection, copyright and access. However, the Vawdrey Archive project presented uniquely complex challenges. WSRO were more familiar with written records as opposed to artworks; not only were these works of art but they had been produced in sensitive circumstances.

The ultimate aim of the project was to find a way to enable access to the Vawdrey Archive. WSRO had a legal obligation to ensure compliance with data protection and intellectual property legislation. Many discussions related to risk-taking took place throughout the project. It was clear that the risks WSRO faced were somewhat different to those of Outside In. Therefore, WSRO worked with Outside In to ensure that enough time was allowed throughout the project for consultation and proper investigation into the implications of making the artworks accessible. This did lead to a delay in making artworks available online.

The project provided an opportunity to develop a new approach to working with art therapy records. It was recognised that the learning from this project could be shared with the Wellcome Trust, other relevant institutions and the wider community.

Outcomes for service users

As a result of this project there is much greater access to and awareness of the archive. All of the material in the collection has been digitised, including Vawdrey’s thesis, and will be made publicly available online. An unexpected outcome was that some of the participating artists created work inspired by the archive. Their work ranged from magazine collages to sculptures.

One of the most important outcomes was the learning which took place through this project and a new framework developed by WSRO for working with art therapy records. The work challenged traditional archive cataloguing. The artists worked in groups to discuss how to title the works, and then developed general guidelines which informed how all the material was catalogued. This included agreeing to describe the artwork creators as artists and patients, it was acknowledged that they held both of these identities. It was also acknowledged that using the terms “Case 1” and “Case 2”, as used by Vawdrey in reference to patients, was dehumanising. Through the process the artists questioned perceptions which influenced captions and labels. There was an agreement not to gender what was depicted and not to label what wasn’t clearly already labelled in the images.

‘There was something freeing about there not being much background info on the pictures as it meant that you could associate what you would like with them.’

Participating artist Jan/Feb 2019

The learning from the project is now being shared by Outside In through a network of organisations they are working with including; Glenside Hospital Museum (Bristol), the Mental Health Museum (Wakefield), Glasgow Life Museum (Glasgow), Lothian Health Service Archives (Edinburgh) and Dumfries and Galloway Council Archives (Dumfries) and the Prinzhorn Collection (Heidelberg).

What was learned from the process?

The project provided a rich experience for all participants. It was challenging and emotionally tough at times. Clear and direct means of communication were established between artists and the Project Coordinator. This meant practical and personal issues could be dealt with quickly. An emphasis was placed on participants only taking on what they were comfortable with, and not feeling pushed to take on too much. Artists were asked to only engage with work and activities within the project that were appropriate for them. It was also made clear that support was on offer if required.

WSRO learned how to incorporate different world views into the practicality of cataloguing and this enabled them to explore the archive in different ways. It encouraged WSRO to take what can be a very procedure driven process and look at the biases and assumptions which can be incorporated into cataloguing. There was a genuine value in hearing from people who wouldn’t normally have a voice in archival work. It led to more thoughtful nuanced descriptions and a broader understanding of what archives are for.

In 2019 an end of project event was held in the search room at WSRO. The event included music, interpretative dance and interactive activities; something which hadn’t been seen in the search room before! It challenged the perception of what and who the archive building was for. The artists used the archive as a basis for the event and in doing so opened up the collection to a new form of interpretation. It was also a way of bringing people into the record office who may not have been aware it existed. It was a place for creative expression, performance, conversation and socialising. There were initially barriers for the archive, with rules related to it being a controlled environment. However, it was possible to use the space in a different way and this project demonstrated the value in opening up the archive.

Key advice

The one piece of advice WSRO would give to anyone thinking of taking on a similar project is to have discussions about access, copyright and what you can and can’t make available early on. It will help to establish an understanding of what you may or may not be able to do with a collection before committing to sharing work or setting up a website to make the work accessible. The original plan for the Vawdrey Archive Project had included a subsite on the Outside In website. There are still plans in place to develop a web presence and it is hoped that this will include the artworks, with measures in place such as a stringent takedown policy and watermarking. However, there was uncertainty about whether this would be possible until close to the end of the project.

The artworks within the Vawdrey Archive had been kept by Dr Brian Vawdrey at his home following his retirement in 1985. They had been produced at a period in time when the attitude to ethics and copyright was quite different to what it is today. This created challenges for WSRO and the cataloguing of historic art therapy work is a relatively new area of work. Therefore, they needed to take a lead and develop a suitable framework which would work for them. They did source specialist advice from The National Archives, and the Wellcome Trust throughout the project on matters related to legislation and copyright. In addition, a steering group was established as a sounding board for the project.

WSRO would also advise that sufficient budget should be allocated to pay participating artists. For this project there was a small fee provided to artists, but it wasn’t full payment. The commitment required from the artists was significant and it was important to recognise this. If artists are participating as volunteers, there is a limit on what expectations can be placed on them. This was a valuable learning point for the service, and plans for any similar projects in future would ensure that these were included. There were also significant associated expenses such as the practical costs of running workshops, catering, travel, parking and taxis for those with mobility issues.

How will this work be developed in the future?

WSRO are keen to take on a similar project again and apply the principles learned through the Vawdrey Archive Project. The project has had a significant impact on how WSRO approach cataloguing. In future, there will be greater consideration given to the context and process of all cataloguing projects. WSRO also plan to revisit historic descriptions on items in their collection, revise ones which have problematic language (for example, ones which may be dehumanising), and develop new guidelines for more inclusive cataloguing.

There are ongoing discussions about the legal and ethical implications of making the artworks available online. However, WSRO are planning on providing an online platform which will allow interested parties to find out more about the Vawdrey Archive, regardless of whether artworks are shown or not.

Find out more about the case study by contacting Jo McConville or Jennifer Mason, Archivists, West Sussex Record Office