Friday 8 August 2014

George Isaac Sidebottom: Spot the Cat

Small oil painting, coloured, from Retreat Archives c.1890-1900 by George Isaac Sidebottom

Like most archives, although most of our holdings are manuscripts on parchment or paper, bound into volumes and loose leaf, we do have other objects in our strong-rooms. 

This painting shows people in the grounds of the Retreat, York, in the late nineteenth century. The Retreat was, and is, a psychiatric hospital run by the Society of Friends. It was established in the late eighteenth century and pioneered moral treatment for the mentally ill. The hospital saw its patients as no less human because of their illness, and emphasised that they should be cared for just like other people. This certainly does not sound unreasonable today but at the time it was extraordinary - standard Georgian treatments for mental patients included chaining to walls, leaving them naked in bare cells and sound beatings.

By the time of this painting, moral treatment was standard and you can see here that the patients were occupied with a variety of sports and activities including golf, cricket, tennis, croquet and football. Some figures in the background are riding bicycles. A slightly surreal element is provided by a patient lying under the tree in a bed. Painting was another pass-time. We know this because the artist who painted this picture was a Retreat patient at the time.

George Isaac Sidebottom was resident at the Retreat from 1894 until 1912. He had been a merchant in the north-west of England and was a non-conformist. He suffered from moral and religious delusions and had been ill, and in care, for some years before his admission. A letter from the transferring doctor called him "a very good fellow indeed it would be hard to find a more agreeable man. He can paint watercolours very decently, sings a little... and can accompany himself fairly well." In his case-notes, George is described as occupying himself in painting, reading, walking (including walking into town) and singing. He even played the piano, and there is correspondence to show that he was allowed to acquire a piano for his room.

He had a keen interest in games at the Retreat, and played cards, billiards, chess, croquet, cricket, hockey and tennis; he even skated in January 1895. He attended the Retreat's 'entertainments' and 'amusements' (which vary from picnics to dances to amateur dramatics) and had holidays in Scarborough at the Retreat's branch house.

References to paintings are made throughout although unfortunately this particular painting was not mentioned specifically. In January 1896 he 'painted a scene for the Lady's party at the beginning of the month' and in October that year 'he occupied himself with painting in oils and gives great attention to his work'. In December 1900 he was 'busy on a scene for the Xmas party'. Towards the end of his life, George painted 'peculiar' caricature portraits, which gave him much satisfaction. He continued painting virtually up to his death at the Retreat in early 1912.

This painting provides us an interesting glimpse of life inside a Victorian mental hospital from the patient's point of view which is all too rare among psychiatric archives. But, since this post is in honour of World Cat Day I also have to ask... Can you spot the cat? Comment below when you spot him (and no peeking until you do!)

Written by Alexandra Medcalf.

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