Born in Sale, near Manchester, he moved with his parents and brother to Tunbridge Wells when he was a child. He attended art school near London and received a degree in fine art. Later, as his parents were concerned he might not make a living as an artist, he trained as a chiropodist. In the 1930s, Adamson returned to painting and exhibited in London and Paris – while also working as a graphic artist in a Fleet Street agency. In the Edward Adamson Archive at the Wellcome Library in London there are examples of one of his colleague’s work: Adamson had already starting collecting.

During the Second World War, he was a conscientious objector and served as a non-combatant medical orderly, working in the UK as an army chiropodist. In the early to mid-1940s he met Adrian Hill, the artist who coined the term ‘art therapy’ in 1942 when teaching drawing to his fellow patients, the visionary Jungian analysts – Irene Champernowne, Rita Simon and Susan Bach, in a tuberculosis (TB) sanatorium. .  After the war, Adamson joined Adrian Hill and others in a project with the Red Cross Picture Library to bring and lecture on reproductions of famous paintings to TB sanatoriums to enhance recovery. Edward was in the first group to bring this programme to a mental hospital, Netherne in Surrey, in 1946.

The first artist to be employed by the NHS, he was to carry on working at Netherne until his retirement in 1981, pioneering art as a therapeutic intervention, the art studio, and the profession of art therapy.

Art and psychosis: Research at Maudsley and Netherne in the 1930s and 1940s

The Netherne medical superintendent, Eric Cunningham Dax recruited Adamson in 1946 to facilitate a research art studio.  The studio had its roots in research into art and psychosis by the psychiatrists, Walter McClay and Eric Guttman at the Maudsley in the 1930s – primarily using mescaline-induced psychosis as a model for schizophrenia.  They were joined towards the end of the 1930s by the German emigré psychiatrist, Francis Reitmanwho was appointed research director at Netherne in 1946 and continued the research in the Netherne studio. They espoused a ‘psychopathological’ or ‘patho-physiological’ view of art and psychosis.  Art was seen as reflecting brain pathology and analysed for patterns or changes in form putatively representing psychosis.

The Guttman McClay Collection is at the Bethlem Archives and holds a number of examples of ‘mescaline paintings’ and a small number of paintings produced in the Netherne research studio under Adamson’s supervision. The works were recently rediscovered during preparations for the Adamson Festival 2014.

The Netherne research studio ran from 1946 to 1950 and Dax estimated 20,000 paintings were produced by about 700 people.  The approach was to encourage free expression. The studio employed quasi-experimental conditions: the people who painted had identical easels, paints and paper, and the role of the ‘artist’, Adamson, was to be a silent facilitator, offering occasional technical assistance and maintaining the studio. There were also experiments: playing contrasting music (Debussy and Bach) and comparing people’s paintings pre- and post- lobotomy.

The main outcomes of the project were:

  • TheInternational Exhibition of Psychopathological Art, (1950) held at the Sainte-Anne Hospital in Paris during the First World Congress of Psychiatry.
  • Reitman’s book ‘Psychotic Art’ (1950)
  • Dax’s book ‘Experimental Studies in Psychiatric Art’ (1953).