Laughing at the lunatic and distracted – it wouldn't happen these days?

I have always found William Hogarth’s engravings fascinating – detailing both the trivia and the drama of ordinary lives in 18thCentury England. Many of them offer commentary on the problems of the day and perhaps also our own times?

In 1735 Hogarth completed a popular series of engravings entitled the “Rakes Progress”. These depicted a young mans debauched journey from a privileged start in life to his death in the infamous London Asylum called Bedlam. This name of this institution has passed into our speech as a term for a fearful and chaotic place. 

The Rake in Bedlam
Hogarth: The Rake in Bedlam

In the foreground of this picture we see the attendants removing the Rake’s chains (although I have read some saying that the chains are just being put on?). In death he is mourned only by the sweetheart he abandoned to pursue a life of drinking, gambling and womanising. As is typical of Hogarth’s work the rest of the picture is full of incident.

The cell on the left shows a “religious maniac”. His face contorts as he sees the shafts of sunlight coming through the bars which he sees as a spiritual visitation. In another cell a man who believes himself to be a king adopts a regal pose – harder to see is the pot he is pissing into. If you remember Dava Sobells book Longitude you will know about the struggle to figure out how to navigate around the world, the man with the telescope has lost his mind in the attempt. Other figures depict depression, a man who thinks he is the Pope and a mad tailor, a reminder of the tailor who measures him for a suit at the start of his progress. Two fashionably dressed women stand out from amongst the inmates.

These ladies have paid to tour Bedlam, this was a popular diversion of the day and a practice that was allowed until 1770 ( See thiswebsite for more details) . One of them is holding a fan to her face and is thought to be either trying to waft the stench from her face or possibly trying to hide the fact that she is laughing at the inmates. It is thought likely that Hogarth himself had toured this institution as it is said that architectural details (such as the bars which divide the “curables” from the “incurables”) are correct. Hogarth was closely involved in the foundation a few years later of the Foundling hospital – which cared for abandoned children. It seems reasonable to me to assume that he would have had a good reason to visit other institutions and didn’t go to Bedlam just to laugh? Whatever his reason to visit though we can be grateful that ideas have changed since Hogarth’s day – or have they?

Everyone is familiar with the experience of meeting a stranger at a party and going through the “what do you for a living” routine. Nowadays I say that  I am a University Lecturer, but previously the revelation that I was a mental health nurse would often prompt a response such as “gosh you must be brave” or a request to talk about the sights I must have seen. If you are a mental health nurse – reflect on this yourself, do people have much idea of what mental health care is like or would their ideas more accurately fit Hogarths image?

Partly this may be due to media portrayals – try entering “schizophrenia” and “murder” into Google or recall the treatment Frank Bruno got from the Sun newspaper in the now infamous “Bonkers Bruno” headline. It is easy to question the press over some of this coverage, especially when the truth is that people with mental health problems are much more likely to be the victims than the perpetrators of violent crime (See MIND information for more details). It would be too easy (if not a little lazy?) to simply blame the press. Perhaps we all enjoy laughing at people who are perceived as different?

For example, I have laughed at some of the X factor auditions – there is an element of slapstick humour when things go horribly wrong but at the same time, being asked to join the laughter at films like this makes me uncomfortable. I have also come across this a few times as well – (whether this film is a fake or not) it is interesting to read the comments underneath.


What do you think? – I think we need to ask ourselves some questions: 

  What do we communicate to people about our work?

  •  What responsibility do we have in promoting understanding about mental health issues?
  •  Are we part of the solution?

…or sometimes part of the problem?

5 thoughts on “Laughing at the lunatic and distracted – it wouldn't happen these days?

  1. Thank you for an interesting and thought provoking post. When I tell people I am training to be a mental health nurse, “I couldn’t do that” and “Aren’t you scared?” seem to be the most common responses. At first, if I am honest, I quite liked the idea that other people thought I must have ‘special qualities’ but now I try to ask them why they think that? I enjoy having the opportunity to talk to people about the role and mental health in general and hopefully spread some positive messages. I think most people enjoy talking about the exciting things that happen in their working life, however those working in mental health related jobs need to be mindful that telling other people about the sometimes extraordinary or ‘adrenaline pumping’ aspects of our working life may only be reinforcing the media stereotypes that are so damaging and stigmatising. It is nice to feel that other people ‘value’ the role but we need to be careful not to sell out our clients in order to promote ourselves.

  2. If you remember Dava Sobells book Longitude you will know about the struggle to figure out how to navigate around the world, the man with the telescope has lost his mind in the attempt.

    I’m willing to be corrected on this, but I always assumed the guy with the telescope was meant to be an astronomer, and this was meant to represent the idea that phases of the moon caused insanity (hence the word “lunacy”).

  3. Hello again

    I definitely read somewhere about that being a reference to the ‘longitude’ thing. Having said that,interpretation of this picture varies depending upon who you read – so there may well be an idea about the moon there too.

    I understood that the definite reference to the moon and the ‘lunatic’ thing can be seen in the lower right hand side (the man sat on the stairs).

    The man is depressed – having been ditched by a well known prostitute (I think) of the day & the dog is barking at the moon which is meant to draw our attention to the moon and the lunar/lunacy reference.

    To be honest though I am quite happy to be corrected on any of this as I am no art historian.

  4. A very interesting topic. Although people don’t buy tickets to tour the local psychiatric hospitals these days, they do buy newspapers that sensationalise reports on the latest “mental” celebrity. So they’re still paying to be entertained by it.

    I think it’s very honest of you to openly self examine by asking “Are we part of the solution or the problem?” Mental health services would be better if more people who worked in that area asked themselves that question.

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