Christmas: Part the first

Wellcome Collection might not be the first place to pop into your head when you think of Christmas. But it turns out that a holiday full of indulgence, excess and merriment is very revealing about the human condition. Elissavet Ntoulia explores how our objects can tell some unexpected Christmas stories in this two part series leading up to the big day.

Pagan beginnings
William Price of Llantrisant (1800-1893) in druidic attire as shown in the Medicine Man gallery

William Price of Llantrisant (1800-1893) in druidic attire as shown in our Medicine Man gallery.

A painting in our Medicine Man gallery shows a man in a field with a long white beard, dressed flamboyantly in a green tunic and trousers and a ‘shaman’ style fox-skin headdress. He was William Price, an eccentric Welsh doctor attracted to the cult of Druidism, something that was very popular in Wales in the Victorian era. Fleeing to Paris to escape capture for his activity in the Chartist movement, he claimed that the engravings of a 2,000 year old stone in the Louvre had ‘spoken’ to him revealing that his first born son would become a Druid Messiah.

For the druids, as well as for the pagan Scandinavians and Germanic people of northern Europe, the coming of the winter solstice was one of the most significant moments of the year and many Christmas traditions can be traced back to it. On 21 December, the ancient Celtic festival of Alban Arthuan marked the celebration of both the shortest day of the year and the rebirth of the sun. During this mid-winter celebration (also known as Yule) the practice of burning the Yule log was carried out to honour the Great Mother Goddess while the Yule tree was decorated, usually with pines symbolising stellar entities which hold important significance for pagans.

Evergreen trees were brought in the house, holding the promise of the eventual coming of spring because of their perseverance through winter. The habit of decorating evergreens persisted with the advent of Christianity, where apples with their biblical associations were preferred as decorations. Prince Albert’s German upbringing and the image of the Royal family around a Christmas tree cemented this tradition as part of the holiday in Britain and subsequently in the US.

The druids venerated the sacred oak tree and the mistletoe that grows rarely as a parasite on it. Gathered at both solstices, the mistletoe was used to make an elixir to cure infertility and the effect of poisons. Its mystical associations passed on to the Greeks and into the Middle Ages when it was hung from the ceiling as protection against evil spirits and witches.

Despite the milder climate of southern Europe, December was also a month of celebration as expressed in the Roman festival of Saturnalia. It started on 17 December and included the celebration of the birth of the sun god Mithras on 25 December. Kissing under the mistletoe may have been first found at Saturnalia because of the strong associations of the mistletoe with fertility, but what we know with more certainty is that some centuries later the mistletoe offered the perfect excuse for Victorian men and women to show public affection to their loved ones without causing a moral outcry.

As Christianity spread, and despite the fact that Jesus had most probably been a spring baby, the pagan traditions practiced for centuries were too many to be ignored and so the Church chose December to officially celebrate his holy birth.

Pomanders: smells like Christmas
Pomanders were often spherical, studded with precious stones or divided into sections for different fragrant substances.

Pomanders were often spherical, studded with precious stones or divided into sections for different fragrant substances.

The Christmas period is well known for stimulating the senses, with taste and smell taking central stage. The sweet aroma of oranges and the intriguing scent of spices awaken loving childhood memories in most of us today, but in plague-stricken Europe they were literally considered life saviours.

According to the miasma theory, disease could travel through bad air so being surrounded by pleasant odours acted as a protective shield. Carrying a pomander on the belt or around the neck was favoured by both men and women and the wealthier the person the more elaborate the design of the pomander. The word pomander (meaning an apple of amber, from the French pomme d’ambre) can apply both to a ball of fragrant substances and its container. Some pomanders had a spherical shape and, when opened, would reveal different sections, similar to an orange cut into pieces, into which its wearer would place several different scents.

Pomanders started to appear at Christmas in the 18th century in the form of an orange studded with cloves and other spices.

Pomanders started to appear at Christmas in the 18th century in the form of an orange studded with cloves and other spices.

By the 18th century, pomanders took the form that we recognise today: an orange studded with cloves and other spices and it made its appearance during Christmas time. Citrus fruits’ essential presence at festive celebrations also has to do with their colour: resembling the rich hue of gold and other precious things, oranges and tangerines have been regarded as tokens of prosperity, wealth and luck in Europe, US, China and Japan.

The story of the gold left by St Nicholas in three poor girls’ stockings drying by the fireplace (in order for them to get happily married) may have something to do with the tradition of placing the fruit in Christmas stockings today.

In the next Christmas post you’ll find out more about St Nicholas, the saint behind Santa Claus, as well as the history of some British Christmas treats.

Elissavet is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.


Cholerics: the real drama queens

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. We previously celebrated this by looking at the four bodily humours in one post and Shakespeare’s most famous melancholic in another. Nelly Ekström now explores his choleric characters and how their temperament affects their actions. 


Katherina (Elizabeth Taylor) and Petruchio (Richard Burton).

Here are two of Shakespeare’s most famous choleric characters: Katherina and Petruchio, the tempestuous couple from The Taming of the Shrew. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, themselves a tempestuous couple, played the leading roles in the ’67 film of the same name. Both are dressed in alarmingly bright red costumes, adding more heat to their already fiery temperaments.

We can thank the cholerics for much of the drama in Shakespeare’s writing. If it was all down to the brooding melancholics, the lazy phlegmatics and the friendly and pleasure seeking sanguines, not much would happen. The choleric is the most active of the four temperaments: they are hot and dry, fiery, creatures. At their best they’re ambitious, brave and proud; more often they’re vindictive, deceitful and violent. And, without exception, irritable and bad tempered. The typical choleric is lean and quick with dry curly hair (often red). The hot-headed cholerics can never sit still or keep their mouths shut, unless it’s part of a clever scheme thought out beforehand of course. They also often suffer from indigestion and heartburn (no wonder they’re so irritable!).

V0009342 The face of a bearded man expressing anger. Etching in the c

The face of a man expressing anger.

They may seem like a unpleasant bunch, but some of their qualities were very highly valued and made them very useful in early modern society. Physical courage especially, as a choleric would never be afraid to draw his sword. But “his” is the essential word here. The two hot, active humours, blood and yellow bile, were considered to be more naturally dominating in men; the two cold, passive humours, phlegm and black bile, in women. A female melancholic was considered to be something much more natural, acceptable and attractive than a male melancholic. He would be considered a quite useless individual. A male choleric however, would be appreciated for his active and aggressive qualities, while the same kind of behaviour would make a woman socially impossible.

The perfect example of this is the comedy The Taming of the Shrew, a play more or less about the choleric temperament. Katherina and Petruchio, the leading female and male characters resepctively, are both angry, stubborn and ungovernable. Her temperament makes her into a shrew that no man will marry, while his makes him a difficult dinner guest at worst. Petruchio marries Katherina and then sets about to change her temperament. 

“…Thou must be married to no man but me.
For I am he am born to tame you, Kate,
And bring you from a wild Kate to a Kate
Conformable as other household Kates.”

(The Taming of the Shrew, Act II, Scene I)

Petruchio throwing the meat in Shakespeare's 'The Taming of the Shrew'.

Petruchio throwing the meat in Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’.

He does this by a method that today would be seen as domestic abuse. He drags her away from her family, starves her and takes her clothes away. But from an Elizabethan medical point of view, to restore balance to an overheated choleric, this is pretty much what the doctor would have recommended: stay away from heat and take off clothes to cool the body, and keep away from warming drying foods like bread and red meat.

I tell thee, Kate, ’twas burnt and dried away.
And I expressly am forbid to touch it,
For it engenders choler, planteth anger;
And better ’twere that both of us did fast,
Since of ourselves, ourselves are choleric,
Than feed it with such over-roasted flesh.
Be patient, tomorrow ’t shall be mended,
And, for this night, we’ll fast for company.”

(The Taming of the Shrew, Act IV, Scene I)

The yellow bile was thought to originate from the spleen. The spleen was also where all the “useless” emotions came from, feelings like lust and vanity. Extreme emotions were caused by extreme changes in a person’s humours. Many of Shakespeare’s characters faint, fit or die from extreme emotions. Ten deaths occur as a result of strong feelings and apparently everyone is at risk, both sexes and all age groups are represented. The three deaths that actually happen on stage in front of the eyes of the audience are caused by grief for the loss of a loved one, but too much of any emotion was seen as dangerous at a time when balance equalled health. The possibility of someone dying from strong emotions is mentioned 29 times in all, and extreme fear, anger or joy appear to be as dangerous for you as grief.


Seeking to alter the levels of your humours to keep them in balance was the most important way to keep yourself healthy and of sound mind. But doing the opposite, actively trying to unbalance your humours, was unnatural and could only end in disaster. The bitter yellow bile inflames your spirit and sparks action, which is just what some characters wish for. The melancholic Prince Hamlet regrets that he is too pigeon-livered and lacks the necessary gall to avenge his father’s death, unlike the more choleric Laertes.

Lady Macbeth is a fairly balanced woman at the beginning of the tragedy Macbeth. However, when she is reads the letter from her husband where he tells her that the three witches have foretold that Macbeth will be king, she begs the spirits to change her. To achieve her goals she needs the rage and ruthlessness of a true choleric.

“… Under my battlements. Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood.
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers…”

(Macbeth, Act I, Scene V)

In Lady Macbeth’s last scene she is sleepwalking on the moor, and she has become what she asked to be made: a shell of a human being, void of remorse and completely governed by her bitter yellow bile. With all that restless energy, it’s hard for people with an excess of choler to relax and find peace, and they often have sleep problems and nightmares. A doctor is called, but since Lady Macbeth has defied nature to change her temperament, she’s beyond the help of any physician and the doctor wishes himself replaced by a clergyman.

“Foul whisperings are abroad: unnatural deeds
Do breed unnatural troubles: infected minds
To their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets:
More needs she the divine than the physician…”

(Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 1)

In the final part of this blog series, we are going to focus on the most popular of the temperaments: the happy-go-lucky sanguines.

Nelly is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.


A drop in the ocean: Sarah Carpenter

‘Bedlam: the asylum and beyond’ interrogates the original ideal that the asylum represented – a place of refuge, sanctuary and care – and asks whether and how it could be reclaimed. This blog series intends to showcase as many different voices and perspectives from people with lived experience of mental ill health and explore their ideas of personal asylum.

This post is from Sarah Carpenter, an artist who showed work in Bethlem Gallery’s ‘Reclaiming Asylum’ exhibition earlier this year.


‘Torn’ from my ‘Emerging’ series.

‘Torn’ from my ‘Emerging’ series.

Having suffered for many years with depression, anxiety and eating disorders, I have found refuge in my art and cannot begin to explain how much it means to me to be able to produce my work.

Having spent a long time with so many things on my mind, my recovery has cleared space in my mind and life for more creativity. I now use art to proactively utilise my energy and in turn keep up the momentum of my recovery. It allows “me time” to do something that I enjoy and am passionate about as a way of self-soothing.

Through therapy from my eating disorder I began to realise how little I recognised and dealt with my emotions. My artwork has allowed me to really engage instead. On a very basic level, producing my work gives me a positive outlet for my frustrations, emotions and problems. I’m able to escape as I “switch off” and focus on the process of making the work. This process allows time to pass and emotions to calm, meaning I can deal with things from a much calmer place.

A strong aspect of my problem is an innate need to challenge myself and do better. Making my work helps me realise the interpretive nature of art and keeping this in sight allows me to be more positive and reward myself again. My illness can make me feel the need to gain control. Producing my work allows me to channel this in a much more constructive and positive manner.

I feel lucky to be able to communicate through my work. In my experience, the arts are a great facilitator for opening up lines of communication.

'Wallpaper' from my 'Emerging' series.

‘Wallpaper’ from my ‘Emerging’ series.

In the past, my artwork has not only facilitated non-verbal communication, it has given me the confidence to talk about my mental health. This all helped towards reducing stigma surrounding eating disorders which made asking for help initially so difficult for me.

I hope that through making my artwork, people who have similar experiences may take comfort in this kind of sharing, that it may help the battle to break down stigmas.

The work

Process to me is just as important as the final outcome. My piece, The Small Things (below), lets an audience in on my deeply personal daily practice of finding sanctuary through repetition.

I work predominantly as a graphic designer and digital photographer, therefore I wanted to share how a return to materials and hand craft can be used as a way to unwind and disconnect from our otherwise predominantly digital life. There is something very comforting about a return to traditional and simple roots. Using textile and fabric is a very satisfying practice for me as it adds another layer in the form of a multi-sensory and tactile experience.

The mark making itself is a process that creates rhythm and movement, which is a comfort to me as my background is in dance. This repetition can also lead me into a more mindful state.

Sanctuary & asylum

I recognise sanctuary and asylum as states of mind, emotions and feelings, as opposed to a physical place. It is an attitude and it is a lifestyle. We can find it within ourselves, but only if given the space, time and tools to do so.


From my ‘Antique Postcard’ series.

There is a lot of focus on the type of spaces that should be provided in order for people to find sanctuary and asylum, but I feel that the most important facilitation starts with society’s attitude towards the ideas of “asylum” and “sanctuary”. These words have negative connotations and, as a society, we actually seem to frown upon the notion of asylum. People who seek help and support are seen as weak; not resilient or strong.

Some of the strongest people that I have met have been the ones who fight internal battles, become in touch with their own emotions and try to become better people by reconnecting and challenging their own thoughts; the people who seek sanctuary.


‘Global Connectivity’, mixed media.

Allowing yourself the time and space, finding sanctuary and changing your thoughts and behaviours is not easy. As a society, we need to facilitate this, rethink the lifestyles that we have created where we ignore our own needs, show no self-compassion, do not give importance to taking time for ourselves and finding sanctuary and where actively seeking asylum is so very difficult to do.

Sarah is an artist, photographer and designer with a strong interest in combining traditional craft with digital practices. Follow Sarah on Twitter and Instagram.

Bedlam: the asylum and beyond‘ is on until 15 January 2017.


A drop in the ocean: Artist Taxi Driver

‘Bedlam: the asylum and beyond’ interrogates the original ideal that the asylum represented – a place of refuge, sanctuary and care – and asks whether and how it could be reclaimed. This blog series intends to showcase as many different voices and perspectives from people with lived experience of mental ill health and explore their ideas of personal asylum.

This post is from the Artist Taxi Driver, an artist and social protestor who showed work in Bethlem Gallery’s ‘Reclaiming Asylum’ exhibition.

The Artist Taxi Driver is the persona of artist and prominent political and social protestor Mark McGowan, whose YouTube channel “chunkymark” has attracted over 50,000 subscribers. In his videos, McGowan films himself and occasional invited interviewees in his taxi discussing political and social issues. Past interviewees have included Frankie Boyle, John McDonnell, Mhairi Black, Noam Chomsky, Caroline Lucas, Charlotte Church, David Graeber and Russell Brand. Continue reading


A drop in the ocean: In the old asylums

‘Bedlam: the asylum and beyond’ interrogates the original ideal that the asylum represented – a place of refuge, sanctuary and care – and asks whether and how it could be reclaimed. This blog series intends to showcase as many different voices and perspectives from people with lived experience of mental ill health and explore their ideas of personal asylum.

This post is from David Beales, an artist and writer who showed work in Bethlem Gallery’s ‘Reclaiming Asylum’ exhibition. In his own words, David confronts the issue of prejudice against the mentally ill by using informative illustration and captions to raise awareness of the problems confronting the mentally ill in the community.


Industrial Therapy

Industrial Therapy | Patients could make a few extra pounds a week by working in the industrial therapy department. Some preferred this to sitting idly on the ward.

Though there were overcrowded dormitories in the old asylums and patients were caught in a poverty trap, usually inmates for life, it was not all grim. The food may have been overcooked, but it was at least regular and on time. In one hospital I remember (and they tended to be similar) there were films in the hall on Wednesday afternoons: pre-war black and white films, ghostly projections on a large, old roll down screen, with the dated dialogue and classical music soundtrack adding to the eerie effect.

A percussion band performed on the hall stage on Thursdays. A woman played what sounded a bit like slowed down stride music, a melodic improvisation on an upright piano, while the members of the band played triangle, clappers and tambourines. Patients from the locked geriatric and senile dementia wards, some ambulant, a few in wheelchairs, were led or pushed by nurses to the hall to sit on tubular steel and Formica chairs in the hall and spend some time away from the ward.

There was a games night when the tables and chairs were brought out in the main hall so that patients could play draughts, chess, snakes and ladders, or dominoes. In another hospital there was bingo night where patients could win a loose cigarette or a bar of chocolate for a line; a bag of five loose cigarettes for a house.

The hospitals interacted too. There were evening skittles matches against teams from other hospitals and in the summer there were cricket matches or a summer fete on the cricket pitch; at one time there were prizes for painting, drawing, cakes, jam and tapestry. There were yearly trips to the seaside. Coaches were hired and patients were each given 50p spending money by a member of staff who doled out the coins from a bag as he walked up and down the aisle of the coach.

Guy Ward

Guy Ward | There was little privacy in the dormitory, often there were no curtains around the beds.

There was camaraderie in the Guy ward dormitory, where the introductory conversations, and paranoid inquisitions that accompanied Terry Burns’ referral to that ward, subsided and metamorphosed into impromptu group therapy sessions. These were mainly for Terry’s benefit as he confronted his anxieties. The few of us who could hold a conversation patiently let him talk; we were his audience and confidantes. His anger burnt out as he found some stability and was able to drink without becoming aggressive, and confront and conquer his prejudices to find some stability and contentment before drinking on medication brought despair again.

Though patients in the old asylums often lived in terrible conditions, they left the psychiatric units with more beds and staff. The staff, when they could rely on the psychiatric hospitals to take chronically ill patients, consequently had more time to help patients suffering from anorexia, agoraphobia and post manic phase depression.

A patient who was admitted because they suffered from agoraphobia would be encouraged by a nurse to take a few steps outside the ward. When the patient had managed to take more steps down the drive leading to the ward, they were encouraged to walk to the phone box under a covered walkway a make a phone call. As they gained confidence they were encouraged to walk to the shops with the nurse so they could do some shopping. The rewards were also practical, preparing the patient for their return to the community.

I saw a patient suffering from anorexia nervosa kept in isolation, except for a nurse posted outside her side room door while she slowly reached a target weight. She was rewarded with a trip to the day room. When she reached the next target weight she was, like the agoraphobic patient, rewarded with a trip to the shops.


A Day Room | In 1980 patients recieved £7 a week. Pensioners were given just £2 pounds a week or in some cases nothing as it was thought that the hospital took care of their needs.

Patients suffering from bi-polar disorder could rest and recover after a manic episode on the wards. The elderly bereaved, often men who had relied on their wives and had to learn living skills, used to be able do this in occupational therapy departments. These treatments may still be available, but for fewer patients than in the past. There were day hospitals, day units and occupational therapy departments for day patients, inextricably closed along with the large hospitals.

Day patients seem to be a thing of the past. Instead, patients in the community are left unmonitored in the community, sometimes in squalor, sometimes even sleeping rough or ending up in prison.

Before the hospitals were closed, the psychiatric units could operate a walk-in open door policy on week days. Patients could see the day hospital nurse and if they thought you were ill you might see a duty doctor on the same day. Now there are more patients but fewer beds. Now there are waiting lists.

Patients now may have to wait months before they can see a psychiatrist, and then find that there are no day resources in the area, no beds free and little the doctor can do besides prescribe tablets and refer the patient to cognitive behavioural therapy. This may be a course of half a dozen one-hour sessions with a therapist; hardly enough time for in-depth psychoanalysis.

Film above made for the Bethlem Gallery: David speaks to Michaela Ross about his work.

It is easier to identify the problems than to solve them. The recent announcement that there will be no increase in the amount of money the government can give the NHS means that there will be no reinstatement of day resources for the mentally ill.

Some patients have for a while, years in fact, attended user led initiatives. Art workshops like Centrepieces at Hall Place in Bexleyheath and Cool Tan Arts in Southwark. Or the Dragon Café, where patients meet at the crypt of St George the Martyr in Borough High Street, also in Southwark. It was started by Sarah Wheeler, to whom the book that accompanies Wellcome Collection’s exhibition, Mike Jay’s Bedlam: This Way Madness Lies, is dedicated.

Pictures from another art workshop, the Italian La Tinaia collective formed in 1975 in a disused hospital farmhouse by healthcare professionals, can be seen in the exhibition and book. Hopefully these will inspire others to start similar projects. They do not have to be art focussed. Drop-ins would help and why not ask community centres and churches if they can help? After all, someone got permission to use the crypt of St George’s church in Southwark to use the premises.

Day resources can provide sanctuary, refuge, asylum and respite from a world that seems to increasingly care less about the plight of the care in the community patient as time marches on.

David writes about these and other subjects in his book The Road to the Asylum about the mental health service, bohemian South London in the seventies and the casualties of society who often ended up in the old asylums.

Bedlam: the asylum and beyond‘ is on until 15 January 2017.


A drop in the ocean: Suzanne Morris

‘Bedlam: the asylum and beyond’ interrogates the original ideal that the asylum represented – a place of refuge, sanctuary and care – and asks whether and how it could be reclaimed. This blog series intends to showcase as many different voices and perspectives from people with lived experience of mental ill health and explore their ideas of personal asylum.

This post is from Suzanne Morris, a writer involved in Core Arts.

Hi, my name is Suzanne and I am someone who suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder, anxiety and other delightful things. I am in therapy at the moment pretending to be “normal”. I also go to Core Arts.

I was diagnosed with clinical depression back in the eighties after a break down. I did a stint at the Junction at Homerton Hospital when it was part of the old Hackney Hospital; afterwards I was put on a waiting list to have psychotherapy. There was a terrible lack of therapists and, sadly, you just had to wait your turn. This often meant you waited years! Continue reading


Strike a pose: Performance categories

This blog series guides you through a brief history of ballroom culture and voguing. From the beginnings in New York to modern voguing and performance categories, Duane Nasis explores this dance culture.

Initially conceived as ‘posing’, Vogue performance as we know it today has developed into three distinct styles which, in competition, are mutually exclusive. Continue reading