Captured on Paper; Life in an Asylum


How marvellous it is to be an artist to see everything in terms of colour, form, rhythm, space and atmosphere.’ Denis Reed 1938

Part of our collection from the 1950s includes 83 documentary drawings by Denis Reed, an artist and patient. His beautiful sensitive drawings are of life in the hospital and his fellow patients. They provide a unique insight into a hidden world.

With the support of the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund we began an innovative project to use his work as inspiration for people to engage in conversations about mental health and participate in events including talks, handling collection, exhibitions and drawing classes.

Many of the drawings were glued or taped to card and backed with telephone directory pages and have been conserved with the aid of a grant of £5,000 from the AIM Pilgrim Trust Conservation Scheme. We sent 11 of our drawings to conservator Caroline Harrison. Volunteers then placed 40 drawings into archival mounts and then framed 20. Thus we have been able to protect and exhibit the drawings.

Extensive research into Denis Reed was conducted by Moira Gavin, tracking down neighbours, collectors, and archives, which has been captured in a fully illustrated booklet designed by Anwyl Cooper-Willis. (Can be purchased from Amazon or GHM)

Following a series of successful drawing workshops in the museum we were able to use Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund to gain match funding from Bristol City Council’s Imagination Fund.

A series of drawing workshops and exhibitions have been arranged by the project manager, Stella Man. We are using the drawings as  an educational community resource to increase our ability to positively impact negative attitudes and prejudice about mental illness by stimulating debate through drawing. Silence is the cause of stigma.

A couple of short videos show the range of talent by artists and beginners alike breathing life into our collection:


and Drinking vessels

We can now offer a touring exhibition and drawing workshops to other museums and venues. If you would like to talk about booking an event please contact Stella Man,

DRAWING WORKSHOPS: So far over 70  people, from Bristol and further afield – as far as Australia – have participated in workshops to learn his drawing techniques.  You can book a one hour session or up to three hour session with tutor and all materials provided.

HANDLING COLLECTION WORKSHOPS: We regularly attend event with our handling collection which support people to consider the care and kindness provided in the past for people with mental illness. Over 500 people from the 3000 that visited the Bristol NeuroScience Festival were engaged in conversation, and members of the Riverside Adolescent Unit (a dedicated service for young people between the ages of 13 and 18 who need intensive help with a range of severe mental health problems) participated in a handling collection event.

POP-UP EXHIBITION: Our touring exhibition can be designed to fit every occasion. We have a portable Denis Reed exhibition on freestanding boards 2m x 2m and information on flexible banners, which are used in conjunction with our handling collection to support people to consider mental health care. Over 1000 people came to a special two week exhibition in the city centre Vestibules Gallery in May 2018 and a smaller version of the exhibition was put up for the University of England’s 70thNHS birthday event.