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> > > Rachel Gadsden: Beyond the Asylum narrative

By Tim Hayton

painting by Rachel Gadsden

Dancing with Angels - Rachel Gadsden

Rachel Gadsden has been exploring derelict Asylum Hospitals seeking to examine the traces of life within their fabric despite the neglect and decay.

She sets about exploring the dereliction to develop a metaphorical voice comparing inside and outside. In the context of an asylum this phrase relates to confinement as well as something which is universally felt.

Rachel's mixed media paintings, drawings, projections and videos attempt to capture the building's struggle to survive and its inevitable physical demise, the decay being a tangible evocation of our own psychological ephemerallity.

The following text describes a psycho-geographical journey through the North Wales Asylum Hospital, Denbigh, which is now a derelict place awaiting its fate.

The journey begins with a transcript of Loanda Wall's notes of confinement. Perfectly explicit, the notes are held at the Denbighshire Record Office in the old Ruthin Gaol. They are typically Victorian and perfunctory, written up in longhand alongside page after page of other patients in a leather-bound book which is also beginning to crumble and fade.

Many record an ultimate discharge from the asylum, within three or so months perhaps, an apparently happy ending. And there emerges too a genuine intent to care, and of course why shouldn't there, albeit hand in hand with a Victorian institutional brutality: for example the routine restraint and force-feeding (though if Loanda herself was ever force-fed it does not appear in her notes).

It is acknowledged too that many of the discharged patients faced an uncertain future, back with their families or the workhouse. For at the time Loanda was admitted we had yet to embark upon the era of post-war socialism when a great altruistic asylum community would be built up at The North Wales Hospital for anyone who needed it. Now that age has come and gone.

Loanda Matilda Wall admitted 6th May 1876.

Acute mania. 26 years. Ill for two months, suicidal, dangerous, in a constant state of utmost excitement. Husband brought her in but states that her husband has been murdered. States that those attending her wish to give her chloral, and will not sleep - and that the attendants have been ripping everything out of her and that her husband has been murdered. 3 children, youngest 15 months. Affectionate to her children, tears her bedclothes. (see catamenia.) 5 months pregnant.

On admission she was in violent choreaic spasms, throwing her head and hands about from side to side. She could give a rational and connected account of herself, but only in a whisper. Says the cause of her being attacked is first of all unkindness of her mother-in-law and also fright. She'd been told her husband was dead.

7 May: Had chloral by draft gv XXXV last night and slept fairly - the spasms have subsided and to a certain extent the complaints of being put to sleep in a cell.

8 May: She is dressed and up in the ward today; is in the workroom but is still very low-spirited, still has a few spasms, but cannot use her voice yet. She's taking her chloral.

10 May: She has been transferred to the sick ward where she is much more comfortable. The spasms have entirely gone, and she can now talk in her ordinary tone of voice.

The artists' reflections
It is now 6 May 2005 and clutching a copy of a faded plan I shove open the rusty iron gates and approach the grey gothic building. Halfway up the tarmac drive, the looming clock-tower blocks out the sun and stirs a sense of confinement. Behind the high, projecting grey-stone walls to the left and right lie rectangular quadrangles, the airing-yards where once upon a time patients deemed too ill or dangerous to have access to the grounds were left in the rain and snow.

The front forecourt is overgrown, weeds reach nearly to my shoulders, and hundreds of window-panes on every floor of the building have been broken with stones. To the north beyond the stone boundary lies a beautiful green patchwork of land scattered with mature trees. It stretches up the valley as far as the eye can see, a hundred and fifty acres of asylum farm which has now been sold off.

The front steps of the asylum are wide and easy to climb, but craning up, the decaying Gothic façade remains majestic and religious, embodying the will of the Victorian Institution - those who enter must kneel and those who don't will be shown the way. The heavy wooden doors swing open and stepping inside on this sunny spring morning the grey reception is covered in fallen plaster and very cold indeed.

I dump my bags and plan on the dusty desk and set off. I'm desperately hoping I'll be able to find Loanda, even after all this time. I go right, and left quickly, and climb a short flight of stairs, but become confused. I try to go back but don't think I've taken the right doorway, so instead I carry on.

I'm completely lost in the maze of empty echoing corridors and begin to hurry. I can't find my way. The end of each corridor is clearly visible, an archway, there in the far distance; and I make for it, but when I get there it's just another T-junction like the last, and I'm compelled again to go left or right.

I stumble into an enormous communal washroom whose white-tiled surfaces cause me to squint against the glare. Now I'm terrified, just as Loanda was. Suddenly I'm transported back to my childhood and a hospital in Kuwait where I line up with all the others to be washed by heavy-handed nurses.

I turn and run, but it's no use I can't keep it up, I'm gasping for breath and have to slow down; and scattered on the floor everywhere I look is a vast array of odd items that have all been left behind: rusty keys, some in bunches; laminated ward names and signs (Lister, X-Ray); fragments of discoloured paper: directives, lists of medication, postcards (from Clacton), and here and there the page of a letter home which seems never to have been sent.

I collect the scraps and artefacts - they might just tell me more about Loanda - and I stop at another room and try to get my bearings through the broken windows.

I'm in a ward this time and the roof has fallen in. Green squashy moss has taken hold across the floor right up to the walls, thick and soft, following the contours of the mounds of soaking debris. In microcosm I see clearly the world outside: tranquil lakes, towns, crags and lush valleys. It has found its way inside the asylum, a whole mystical land which is peaceful beyond compare.

I hear a sound, a voice calling, and maybe it's Loanda's, and I hurry along endless corridors which take me to treatment rooms, padded cells, the kitchen, the boiler-room, and finally the asylum's ballroom. The stage at the far end has been burnt out and the hardwood dance-floor stripped away, but high up, out of reach of the thieves and wreckers the mirror-ball hangs intact in the centre of the ceiling.

Fabulous Christmas parties were held in here and I look around expecting to see the decorations. A patient worked all the year round to make them, and would begin again as soon as the party had ended. The great bands of the fifties and sixties clamoured to perform here for both the patients and the local community: Joe Los, Acker Bilk, Kenny Ball.

I turn away, I'm getting colder and walk on past the offices and dormitories until eventually in a concreted room I find a small door which I hope will lead me back out into the open. In fact I'm standing in the mortuary at the very back of the building, and on the other side of a leafy lane I can see the hospital's chapel. Should I search for a headstone? Many patients lived out their whole lives at the asylum. But claustrophobia overwhelms me and I'm only too glad to escape into the fresh air.

The big-band strikes up and I'm in the ballroom, gazing up at the mirror-ball again, and one by one the stage-lights on the broken gantry seem to flick on, yellow, red and blue. It's night and I'm standing in my party-dress at the edge of the revellers, the patients and the people who've come from miles around.

They're playing a waltz and the mirror-ball spins again and multi-coloured stars sweep across the walls and floor and the heads of everyone. Then, slowly at first, the patients and all the others mingle and move with the music, one two three, round and round the dance-floor… I wake up.

It's the night after my asylum visit and I've been dreaming. I walk through to my studio to see if the snow-white ground on my canvas is dry. The painting will be called Dancing with Angels. I pick up glue and slivers of wood and begin the slow job of building up the relief on the windows of the asylum. I'm making them look like prison bars but I've burnished them with gold.

Behind them on every level are the shadows of generations of patients - Loanda too, I hope - and bewildering empty corridors, keys, letters and sequins, evidence of the terrible struggle, of the parties and of the day to day; and slowly as I work away at the prison bars, the more I accentuate them the more they tend to disappear - the barrier between inside and out. And as I work away in the middle of the night all the shadows in the painting begin to dance again.

Loanda Matilda Wall was discharged from North Wales Hospital on 12 May 1876. I never found out what actually happened to her. I don't think anybody knows.

Artists' biography
Rachel Gadsden gained a BA in Fine Art at Wimbledon School of Art in 1998 and received an AHRB Award to study for an MA in Fine Art at City and Guilds of London Art School in 2000. Since Graduating Rachel has worked on a number of projects including a commission for Children of the Andes Charity, a residency at Huntercombe Young Offenders Institute, a residency at Penallta Colliery in South Wales and an Arts Council funded project about Cane Hill Asylum Hospital (2005).

In December 2004 Rachel received an Artsadmin Digital Media Bursary and used this to research the history of the North Wales Hospital in Denbigh which closed in 1995.

With the generous support of the North Wales Hospital Historical Society who shared their experience of working at the hospital and its history Rachel has made a series of paintings that uses the Asylum as a means of considering our fragility.

Beyond the Asylum Exhibition
Denbigh Museum and Library 3rd September - 1st October 2005
Touring to Faith House Holton Lee Dorset in 2006

Rachel Gadsden's website
BBC Wales North East feature
Art-architecture website

Please click on this link to visit Rachel Gadsden's Gallery of images from 'Beyond the Asylum'