We are lucky enough to have the mentoring support of artist Mel Brimfield, with one meeting held at the beginning of the project and another to come later. For those not familiar with Mel’s practice, it represents a fabulous cornucopia of collaborative projects featuring painting, photography, installation and large-scale live performance events.

STAND, 2020, Mel Brimfield & collaborators

We were drawn to her as a mentor in the context of “A Private Land” because of her exciting projects that have a strong lean towards exploring mental health, such as her research residency at Bethlem Royal Hospital’s National Psychosis Unit and Kings College Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience which culminated in the touring exhibition From This World, to That Which Is to Come. The title is from John Bunyan’s 1678 parable The Pilgrim’s Progress, which describes a fictional pilgrimage from ‘The City of Destruction’ to ‘The Celestial City’, perhaps suggesting a parallel for the collapse of mental health and the difficult journey to recovery.

Mel’s obvious love of fictions drawn from popular comic strips (Tintin, Charlie Brown) to Kafka’s Metamorphosis abound in this project, which is another aspect we warmed to.  Involving over 100 collaborators including mental health service users and staff, the project was on an epic scale compared with “A Private Land”, which at this research stage is explorative, and has as its starting point a derelict rural mental asylum.

We spoke about the complexities at the heart of A Private Land, which make it at once problematic and for us compelling. At the time we were thinking of the culminating event as a procession/artist led walk from the Mid Wales Hospital up to the lovely deconsecrated church St Ellyw’s at Llanelieu, where we would have an installation.  This would mean re-enacting a walk that “inmates” (so-called in the registers at Powys Archives) from the asylum would have performed every week for their weekly religious service before the asylum chapel was built some years later.  However, this time the walk would be more activist and healing, drawing attention to taboos in mental health, challenging why over 1000 “inmates” of the Mid Wales hospital had been buried there in unmarked graves, for example.

Soon after the meeting with Mel we felt the weight of symbolic architecture overload, and wondered about the pros and cons of the isolated church as a venue. Given the rural nature of the site, the taboos, strong emotions and barriers all around us are much more entrenched; we realised we would have to tread much more carefully than we had thought hitherto. Would participants in the project welcome the idea of a procession and who would ‘own’ it. Would the experience be of moving between two sites of care or oppression?

The session was very full and buzzing with ideas, the main themes we covered in the session were: what are our intentions from the offset? How can we use the project as a healing space for mental health challenges and treatment? Participatory practice; the sheer amount of essential work that goes in to finding your participants and project partners to begin with; if we wanted to, how would we make an enquiry through the gothic in relationship to asylum ruins in this particular project?

There were so many thoughts, interesting directions, books, articles, artists to follow up, it was really exciting, but it felt essential that we had to narrow down, decide what was most important, seeing as this is a research project with a very tight schedule, 8 months with both of us having other commitments.  In essence, inclusion and seeking hitherto silenced voices has remained central, I hope Mel doesn’t mind my extracting a sentence from her fantastic follow-up lengthy text packed with thoughts and ideas:

“….this comes back to critic Jan Verwoert’s ideas around invocation and evocation in place of outmoded modes of appropriation in contemporary practice. He describes the notional act of setting the conditions of a séance – it is an open invitation to those voices on the periphery that may wish to speak. …”


In mid-March Penny Hallas and I went to Powys Achives in Llandrindod Wells to see some of their extensive archive relating to the Mid-Wales Hospital, Talgarth. Weeks after our visit we are still moved and inspired by the images, reports and narratives we viewed. The visit gave strong historical roots to our project working with people who wish to share their own recollections of the former hospital.

We were particularly interested in patient records as the experiences of this group are harder to find than the more dominant narratives of those in positions of relative power. So we requested to view patient registers of discharges and deaths. We were aware that we could only view records pre 1923, which exceed the 100 year limitation on access.

One of the items in the archives is a beautifully coloured architect’s ground plan from around 1900 (Giles, Gough and Trollope). Our photo above has been adapted to show the actual ground it represents as we see it now.  ‘The map is not the territory’ (Gregory Bateson, 1988)

We viewed five registers: three for male and two for female patients, each containing hundreds of records documenting date and reason for admission, observations of general health, family involved, and ‘Mental state on Admission’. Daily records are not kept but entries are made at key moments, such as improvement or deterioration of health. Many people are discharged as recovered, but equally, many records conclude with a death certificate.

Medical entries were of course made by staff members, so although patients’ accounts of difficulties they experience are given, it is only through rare inclusions such as letters that we get their direct words. All the records are in English, despite the fact that the Mid-Wales Hospital was built partly to provide care in Welsh. In 1842, clinicians in Gloucester, where many people from Wales were sent, had raised concerns that they could not treat people effectively, not being able to speak or understand the language. https://www.countyasylums.co.uk/mid-wales-hospital-talgarth/ English would have been the dominant or official language, but would Welsh have been spoken on a day to day basis? The archive team suggested that we might be able to find out more about this by looking into the 1911 Census records for the Talgarth area.

We saw hundreds of astounding photographs, full of vitality, conveying such a strong sense of the person depicted. We do not yet have permission to share any of these, though we will continue to have contacts with Powys Archives about potential for this. ­In the meantime, I made a drawing inspired by what we witnessed.

Faced with so much material – faces emerging from the page, then lost in a blur as we turn to the next – it’s tempting to look for the ‘special’ stories – maybe some-one from our home areas, the man or woman of colour, the children, the people whose voices come through the letters. But of course each page and each story is special, deserving time and attention. It will take us some time to process everything, and to begin to find ways of honouring those past people and experiences whilst respecting Powys Archives’ guidance about confidentiality.

Glenside Museum have faced these dilemmas and have chosen to share photographs and stories. In one of their Instagram posts they write: ‘Historically museums such as ours tended to omit patients’ stories and concentrate on the place and the staff. This made our ability to talk about patient care very one-sided. It also added to stigma as it suggests there is no value in their story and some sort of shame in having been in such a hospital. Just as there is no shame in having cancer or a broken leg, there is no shame in having had poor mental health’.  https://www.instagram.com/p/Cknd_xUsI93/

 In a following post we will share more about how other communities, museums and archives deal with sensitive material, and try to learn from their approaches, but for now, more about Powys Archives…

The Archive team were curious about the work of former artist in residence at Mid Wales Hospital, Tessa Waite, and whether she had any documentation of the artworks and exhibition she co-ordinated at the Wyeside Arts Centre in Builth Wells as part of her 4 years residency in the early 1990s. We were able to ask her about that recently. Apparently the artworks were either returned to the owners, or if they were unwanted, were destroyed after an agreed and appropriate length of time. She does not think she has any photographs of the exhibition, but will check her records.

We had heard that many patients were buried in unmarked graves near the chapel, but had not been able to verify the source of this information. Thanks to the support of the Archive staff we viewed parts of the Register of Burials up to the 100 year cut off date of 2023. From this we could see that there are indeed at least 1000 unmarked graves there. With more research and access to redacted archives, exact numbers could be discovered, but for us now, the information we have will be crucial to the course of the project and response to the site.

At the very end of our visit we were able to cross reference from the Register of Burials back to the Register of Discharges and Deaths and learnt the name of one woman who is buried there. There was no photograph and we cannot share her name, but we will not forget her and hope to find a way to honour her and all the others.

With warm thanks to the team at Powys Archives for their support so far.


Before our decision to work together on (A)Private Land, we knew the Glenside Hospital Museum housed an fascinating collection mostly relating to the history of mental health care and specifically Glenside Hospital, set within the grounds of the buildings which opened in 1861 as the Bristol Paupers Lunatic Asylum. We had been in conversation with Stella Man, who was enthusiastic that we should see “Looking to the Light”, the temporary exhibition by artists responding to the collection. We visited on 1 February.

Anna Rathbone, installation at Glenside Museum

As we approached, we were struck by the position of the previous Asylum Chapel that houses the museum collection, being similar to that of the position of the chapel at Talgarth in relationship to the rest of the asylum buildings.  A world away from the neglected and vandalised ruins of the Mid Wales Hospital at Talgarth, the original Bristol Lunatic Asylum (renamed Beaufort War Hospital, then Bristol Mental Hospital, finally Glenside Hospital) is now the University of the West of England Faculty of Health and Social Care.

Entering the museum we were greeted by Anwyl Cooper-Willis and given a warm welcome and introduction to the collection and temporary art exhibition.  The museum is busy and stimulating, the volunteers and staff show pride in the museum’s upkeep, collection and general liveliness.  Near the entrance there was a very interesting series of photographs and information about former patients based on research by Dr Paul Tobia, who has been studying the patients at Bristol’s mental hospital, 1861-1900, using the patient records at Bristol Archives and archives across Britain.

That so much has been lovingly saved at Glenside, and former patients finally remembered and honoured was deeply moving, but we couldn’t help feeling a sense of sadness that virtually nothing has been saved from the Mid Wales Hospital, and former patients’ histories are obscured.  Why was this the case?  It may be that in a small rural community mental illness is more tabooed and just something that shouldn’t be talked about, which means that a vast amount of human experience is negated.  For whatever reasons or happenstance that the Mid Wales Hospital and contents has been left to rot, it feels so important now – at the very last possible moment – to preserve something, and most particularly look for the voices of those who were treated there.

Our visit left us inspired and grateful to those who have worked so hard here to keep histories alive.  A fantastic outcome of our project would be the beginning of some kind of archive for the Mid Wales Hospital that would be accessible to all, a springboard for discussions about mental health and its treatments historically and in the present day.

Dentist/Barber Chair, from Glenside Hospital

former Mid-Wales Hospital interior 2022