“Don’t tell me I’m mad. This is the truth”: archiving Audrey Amiss’s life as an artist and mental health patient

Elena Carter and Anthony Day, archivists at Wellcome Collection, give a candid account of their work cataloguing the ‘profoundly personal’ archive of artist and mental health survivor Audrey Amiss.

As archivists, we spend our days making sense of the papers left behind by people. Sometimes, for months (or even years) we sift through boxes of letters, photographs, documents, describing what we find and trying to reconstruct the order and history of their creation. Whether lone individuals or large organisations, there are always puzzles to solve.

At the end of this process, we produce an online catalogue which simply acts as a map to what is in the boxes – a guide for people to begin their own research journeys. Our own personal assertions and emotional interactions with the collection are stripped back to provide a ‘neutral’ or authoritative document (as much as is humanely possible, that is).

Of course, the idea of neutrality is a myth. We are often the first to look through an archive collection, and to find poignant, unsettling, or emotive materials. We might be the first person to read someone’s diary since their death. As well as being in this position of privilege, the work can sometimes feel intrusive, upsetting or challenging.

Over the past year, an encounter with a particularly unusual and profoundly personal archive caused us to think more about what it means to be an archivist.  The archive was created by Audrey Amiss: an artist, civil servant, and mental health patient, or in her own words, as she writes in her passport under occupation: a “typist artist pirate king”.

Box containing Audrey Amiss’ scrapbooks prior to cataloguing taking place. Wellcome Collection

While we never met Audrey when she was alive, we’ve spent over a year surrounded by her notebooks, sketch books, drawings and scrapbooks, and feel like we’ve come to know her in some way.

Audrey Amiss was a promising and talented student at the Royal Academy, where she had won a scholarship. Early portfolio works held in the archive show Audrey refining her style and learning new techniques and methods, and hold all the promise of Audrey as a young and hopeful artist. But Audrey’s time at the RA was cut short by a mental breakdown in 1958 which landed her in a psychiatric unit.

After this, she didn’t return to the Royal Academy, but instead pursued her own artistic path. She was often frustrated with the art world, complaining “I’m avant-garde and misunderstood. They think I’m incompetent”. Much of her time was spent alone at home developing her own artistic practice, writing letters, sketching and recording her intense and colourful way of seeing the world.

She created a bewildering amount of work documenting the minutiae and experience of her everyday life. Her work often took the form of annotated scrapbooks which used food packaging, junk mail, and other found items to document her daily experiences. Often these experiences shine through a searing yet surreal critique of a Rice Crispies packet or a seemingly mundane review of a ready meal which drifts into an insightful musing or free association on the imagery of its packaging.

These volumes are dense, overflowing with visual imagery, and they are accompanied by various other volumes, such as diaries, sketchbooks, photograph albums and account books. Audrey documented aspects of her daily life with a compelling persistence and commitment, cataloguing her own day to day experiences, from the food she ate, to the money she spent, and countless letters she wrote.

When Audrey died in 2013, aged 79, her family found her home full of all this material she had created. A comment from Audrey in 1998 leaves us imagining her smiling wryly at the family’s discovery of it all: “It seems I am destined to be a dealer in scrap paper. This place would burn like a tinder box. It’s full of paper”.

The family found paintings stacked against the walls, as well as hundreds of scrapbooks, sketchbooks and diaries fanning out over beds and tables and packed in wardrobes beside her brightly coloured blouses. Faced with this unruly body of work, they decided to honour Audrey by finding a way to share her story. A chance encounter to Audrey’s work being offered to Wellcome Collection.

At Wellcome Collection, we’d been talking about what it meant to collect ‘lived experiences’ and trying to address the weaknesses and flaws in our collections. Archives are traditionally top-down, with a focus on the bureaucratic, or on professional perspectives and organisations. Similarly, medical collections are dominated by the voice of the professional – a patient’s condition is seen through the eyes of the medical world; their life experiences reduced to a patient number or condition in a case book, or an interesting specimen for examination. Often lives are simply traces in records. These gaps in archives make it harder to fully flesh out and understand real human experiences.

Audrey’s archive is the polar-opposite. It details various aspects of her life from the mundane to her most deeply held anxieties, told entirely through her eyes and her seemingly unmediated thoughts. It allows us a more nuanced view on a life lived, which reminds us of all the other human voices behind the patient numbers and admission ledgers – the stories we have lost, stories that aren’t recorded – that people aren’t just patients but are complex human beings with humour, strangeness, anger and creativity.  As such, this is an incredibly valuable first-person narrative.

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Audrey isn’t alive to say how she would have felt about having her private thoughts placed in a public realm, let alone in a ‘medical library’. We know that her interactions with psychiatrists were often fraught – she battled against her frequent incarcerations in hospital and hated being on medication. On one occasion, when a psychiatrist tried to do an ink blot test on Audrey, Audrey left him behind a whole series of blot pictures she’d made herself and waited for his comments.  To Audrey, it was the world that was mad, and the whole ‘kangaroo court of mad psychiatrists’ that needed treatment – not her.

However, Audrey was also an active campaigner for mental health rights, fighting for “Justice for Lunatics!” on behalf of other psychiatric survivors like herself.  She campaigned for animal rights – seeing herself also as a laboratory tested animal who had suffered at the hands of psychiatry. On page after page of her record books, Audrey records the endless letters she wrote to everyone she could think of, telling them of her treatment as a patient. Audrey wanted her opinions on mental health to be heard. Perhaps situating her archive at Wellcome Collection allows her the power to speak directly to us about her experiences, and in doing so reframe our understandings about mental health.

Audrey could often see the funny side of situations, and her intelligent and acerbic humour is what brings these papers to life for us. While on holiday in China, wearing a Chairman Mao cap with badges tilted at a rakish angle, Audrey laughs so much that she wets herself. Shortly after, she is arrested and brought to England to be sectioned. Watching a court case, Audrey is ejected for laughing too loudly, causing her to shout at the police that suffering from a diminished sense of humour should be a crime.

How can we possibly present Audrey  with neutrality and detachment, when her life was so multifaceted, so colourful, chaotic and emotional? To distance ourselves from Audrey feels like re-pathologising her, placing her back in her box as a patient. Instead, we hope that our closeness to Audrey has brought out her voice, and allowed her to tell her own story, giving her some of her autonomy back again.

To end with Audrey’s words:

“My sketches are like milestones in a way, because they fix the temporary into the permanent. Meaning I’ve fixed them once and for all. They may change afterwards but I’ve recorded them.”

Audrey Amiss’ archive is held at the library at Wellcome Collection. It is currently in the process of being catalogued so that it can be made available to researchers. Further information about the archive can be found by searching the reference PP/AMI on the library catalogue.

Elena Carter is an archivist at Wellcome Collection, with an interest in lived experience, marginalised voices, and activist approaches to archiving. In her current role, she is acting as interim Collections Development Archivist, focusing on developing Wellcome’s collections to challenge how we think and feel about health.

Anthony Day was an archivist at Wellcome Collection who worked on various collections which explored the intersection between art and mental health. He recently took a new post working on the collections of art historians at the Paul Mellon Centre. 

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