Call goes out for artists to consult on archiving rare art collection

Dr Vawdrey
Dr Vawdrey

Artists with lived experience of mental health issues are being welcomed to help create a fresh way of approaching medical and hospital archives.

Outside In, a Chichester-based charity which supports artists who find it difficult to access the art world for reasons including health, disability, isolation or social circumstances, is inviting artists to join The Vawdrey Archive project.

The Vawdrey Archive comprises nearly 200 paintings by patients in art therapy sessions run by psychiatrist Dr Brian Vawdrey between 1951 to 1971, along with a copy of Dr Vawdrey’s illustrated thesis, ‘Art in Analysis’. Many art works were created at the former West Sussex County Asylum in Graylingwell, Chichester.

An unusual record of early art therapy, the archive provides an important insight into the therapeutic process, so hopes are it will offer a unique perspective on art therapy’s development as a discipline.

Outside In is working with the West Sussex Record Office on cataloguing, preserving and digitising the archive, with the long-term goal of putting both catalogue and digitised images online.

It now needs 10 artists to commit to 15 days of work on the project.

Plans are to hold an initial series of bi-weekly sessions, some at the Record Office in Chichester, where the artists will create artwork and visual responses to the archive, take part in self-directed study and attend site visits.

The idea is to help archivists shape and enrich the recording of the artwork thanks to the artists’ lived mental health experiences.

The project is being funded by the Wellcome Trust, which has provided just over £46,000 to help preserve the archive thanks to its rare insights into art therapy.

Outside In director Marc Steene said: “Outside In is extremely excited to be working with the West Sussex Record Office on this highly innovative project. Enabling Outside In artists, with a lived experience of mental health issues, to be given the opportunity to guide and be consulted in the archiving of this incredibly fragile and rare collection of patient art work will provide important learning for all.

“We are also delighted to continue our relationship with the Wellcome Trust and thank them for their support with this project.”

Applications are due October 15, with interviews on October 29 and November 2. Contact Hannah Whitlock at hannah.whitlock@outsidein.org.uk or 01273 381311.

‘A groundbreaking project’

Work on the Vawdrey Archive presents unusual challenges for the team at West Sussex Record Office who are collaborating with charity Outside In on its cataloguing, preservation and digitisation.

Jennifer Mason, team leader (Collections Management) at West Sussex Record Office said: “It’s really quite an unusual archive - there are not many collections of art therapy works surviving so it’s quite exciting for research on art therapy as an emerging discipline. It’s also very unusual to have so much information.”

The collection has considerable local significance, given much was created in a Chichester institution - the former West Sussex County Asylum in Graylingwell.

“Dr Vawdrey was there for much of his working life and he was dedicated heart and soul to the place.”

West Sussex County Council archivist Joanna McConville said the Record Office’s role is not just to preserve the art work, store it safely and digitise everything with a view to enabling much wider access to the collection, but also to catalogue the collection, putting it into order and in groupings, with reference numbers, to allow its acccessibility, tracking and safety.

However, the collaboration with artists with personal experience of mental health issues is taking the project to a new level.

Joanna said: “We want to try to make this a process that looks outwards. We want to inform ourselves on another level about what may be meaningful and important to people with very different perspectives.”

Among other outcomes, the intention is for the project to lead to ‘discussions on ethical issues and how art therapy works are viewed and used’.

Joanna said: “There are certain ways we want to use the material for outreach, but there are questions around this. Is this art or medical notes and should artists be named? It’s very much an evolving project.”

The teams at both Outside In and the Record Office will be blogging on how the project progresses and an event is planned for March 2019 to share learnings.

They are keen to encourage people to benefit from their experiences.

Joanna said: “It’s really new ground for us to be breaking. We are hoping this will produce very interesting conversations.”

See www.outsidein.org.uk