Bethlem Museum

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The art and artefacts of ‘Bedlam’

Bethlem Royal Hospital Museum and Gallery, Beckenham

Decorative plates made in the creative workshops at Bethlem Royal Hospital
Decorative plates made in the creative workshops at Bethlem Royal Hospital

Most Londoners will be aware of the insti­tution that was the origin of the word ‘bedlam’ but few know that it has survived to the present day, albeit in a very different form and setting.

The priory of St Mary of Bethlehem was founded outside Bishopsgate in 1247 and 130 years later it began to provide shelter and care for the mentally ill. When Henry VIII dissolved England’s religious orders and confis­cated their properties he gave the priory buildings to the City as a place of incar­cer­ation (but very little treatment) for London’s lunatics.

In 1675 a new hospital was built in Moorfields, where it gained notoriety through its policy of allowing those who could afford an admission fee to amuse themselves by wandering the halls and, quite literally, mocking the afflicted.

The insti­tution put its unsavoury past behind it and relocated to Lambeth in 1815, to the building that now houses the Imperial War Museum, and in 1930 it moved to its present site in the leafy suburb of Monks Orchard, which lies on the south side of Beckenham.

The hospital’s museum possesses a magni­ficent collection of art, artefacts and archives relating to mental illness and the history of the Hospital of St Mary Bethlehem and its successors. However, its cramped accom­mod­ation means that only a very limited selection can be displayed at any one time. Its most prized posses­sions, always on show, are the statues Raving Madness (shown below) and Melancholy, by Caius Gabriel Cibber (see also the statue of Charles II), which were originally mounted on either side of the gateway to the Moorfields hopsital.

The gallery contains a little miscellany of more recent art, mostly the work of the hospital’s residents and ex-residents. The paintings and drawings on display range from the whimsical to the discon­certing and sometimes downright distressing. On a lighter note, there are Bedlam-branded souvenir items for sale – mugs, pencils and the like.

Cibber - Raving Madness - Bethlem

The Bethlem Royal Hospital, Monks Orchard Road, Beckenham BR3 3BX
Phone: 020 ​3228 ​4227
Websites: Bethlem Heritage, Bethlem Gallery
Open: Museum: Mon–Fri 9.30am–4.30pm and on selected Saturdays; Gallery: 11am–6pm, Wednesday to Friday (see websites for details)
Closed: bank holidays and other (NHS) statutory holidays
Admission free
Nearest stations: Eden Park and West Wickham (both National Rail and two-thirds of a mile from the hospital)