JJ Beegan: A chance re-discovery in the Adamson archives saw the entire life’s expression of one inmate realised in a handful of works.
By David O’Flynn
There is little known about the asylum artist(s) known as JJ Beegan, whose drawings made using charred matches on institutional toilet paper, or using stubs of blue pencils on pages
torn from The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson, Volume VI, have been recognised in several exhibitions and publications since the 1960s. These works came out of Netherne Hospital in Surrey, UK, where the father of art therapy, Edward Adamson (1911–1996), collected and promoted patients’ artworks.
British long-stay mental hospitals were challenging places after World War II, having been starved of staff and resources. Physical treatment such as electric convulsive therapy, insulin coma therapy and brain operations – the infamous lobotomy – were widely used. Antipsychotic medication only became available in the early 1950s. However, a few asylums had started unlocking some of their doors in the late 1930s, known as the “open-door movement”, and progressive social, creative and occupational interventions were emerging...