Adamson Collection



    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:

    The International 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).


    The Canadian painter William Kurelek (1927–1977) came to London to seek mental health treatment at the Maudsley Hospital in 1952. He was treated by the psychiatrists Bruno Cormier and George Carstairs. In November 1953, Carstairs referred him to Netherne Hospital to paint with Adamson, who was in the early years of developing his approach using art as therapy.

    He stayed for 14 months, later saying about his ‘A Ball of Twine’ (1956):

    “I have never really been mad. I was only fooling. I had you all on the end of a piece of string all the time!” (Art as Healing, page 27)

    The Collection and the Bethlem Archives and Museum hold several of his masterpieces from this period, including the iconic ‘The Maze’.

  • ADAMSON AT NETHERNE 1951 – 1981

    Adamson continued to work alone with hundreds of people in his art studios after Dax left until his retirement in 1981. He developed a ‘non-interventionalist’ approach to facilitate the act of creation: how not to influence, distort or impinge on self-expression was the artist’s or therapist’s primary concern.  His work exploring the possibilities of art as therapy was hugely influential.

    From the 1940s he was working with the pioneers of art therapy towards establishing Art Therapy as a profession.  In 1964 he was a founder member of the British Association of Art Therapists and briefly its first Chair.  In the early 1970s he was head of the first British art therapy training course at St. Alban’s School of Art, now part of Hereford University.

    Though he was not at home with art therapy’s move towards psychoanalysis in the 1970s, his work at the Netherne art studio, the Adamson Collection, his galleries at Netherne and Ashton Wold and his book, ‘Art as Healing’, are key documents for British Art Therapy.

    Adamson believed passionately in exhibiting the work made in the studio as the Adamson Collection.  He saw this as educating the public about the creativity and humanity of those they had excluded in the asylums.


    The Adamson Festival celebrated the life and work of Edward Adamson (1911-1996), visionary pioneer of art as therapyand creator of the Adamson Collection; and the thirty year anniversary of the publication of Adamson’s and John Timlin’s book, ‘Art of Healing’ in 1984. The Adamson Festival was the first major survey of Adamson’s work since his death.

    The Festival revisited Adamson’s approach to using art and creativity to enable people’s recovery and healing, through engagement with professionals, service users and artists working with art to promote psychological recovery, and with creative arts therapists from South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust.

    Adamson’s and Timlin’s book, “Art as Healing” won MIND Book of Year award in 1985. It is a major text on art as therapy, and the Adamson Collection, but has been out of print since 1991. In 2014 Adamson Collection Trust (ACT) reprinted “Art as Healing” in a limited facsimile edition of 2,000 copies.

    At £25 including postage and packaging , it is currently available from