National Media Museum blog

We explore the science, technology and art of the still and moving image, and its impact on our lives.

D is for Dr. Hugh Welch Diamond… Photography and the pseudoscience of physiognomy

For the next step of my alphabetical wander through the National Photography Collection, I have chosen the work of one of the major figures in early British photography who is now best known for his pioneering use of photography as a medical tool and for his haunting portraits of the mentally ill.

Portrait of Dr. Hugh Diamond, 1869, Henry Peach Robinson, The Royal Photographic Society Collection, National Media Museum

Portrait of Dr. Hugh Diamond, 1869, Henry Peach Robinson, The Royal Photographic Society Collection, National Media Museum

Dr. Hugh Welch Diamond was one of the most important figures in early British photography. He made his first photographs in April 1839, just three months after the announcement of photography’s invention. In the 1840s he befriended one of his patients, Frederick Scott Archer and subsequently became one of the first people to use Archer’s collodion process.

Diamond published articles on photography in several journals and, in 1853, became one of the founder members of the Photographic Society. Technically accomplished, he was active as both a landscape and still life photographer. However, he is now remembered primarily for a remarkable series of portraits he took in connection with his work with the mentally ill.

Roman Bridge, Ardoch, Perthshire, 1854, Dr. Hugh Welch Diamond, The Royal Photographic Society Collection, National Media Museum

Roman Bridge, Ardoch, Perthshire, 1854, Dr. Hugh Welch Diamond, The Royal Photographic Society Collection, National Media Museum

In the 1840s, Diamond studied psychiatry at London’s Bethlem Hospital (from where we get the word ‘bedlam’) and in 1848 he was appointed Superintendent of the Female Department at the Surrey County Asylum. Diamond combined his photographic expertise with his medical training and began to photograph his patients in simple poses against a plain background – poignant echoes of conventional studio portraits of the time.

Portrait of a patient, Surrey County Asylum, c. 1855, Dr. Hugh Welch Diamond, The Royal Photographic Society Collection, National Media Museum

Portrait of a patient, Surrey County Asylum, c. 1855, Dr. Hugh Welch Diamond, The Royal Photographic Society Collection, National Media Museum

In 1856, Diamond presented a paper to the Royal Society of Medicine, entitled ‘On the Application of Photography to the Physiognomic and Mental Phenomena of Insanity’ and his portraits were reproduced in medical journals. They were also shown in photographic exhibitions where they received mixed reviews. Neither Art nor Science, people were unsure how to respond to them.

Portrait of a patient, Surrey County Asylum, c. 1855, Dr. Hugh Welch Diamond, The Royal Photographic Society Collection, National Media Museum

Portrait of a patient, Surrey County Asylum, c. 1855, Dr. Hugh Welch Diamond, The Royal Photographic Society Collection, National Media Museum

In 1858, Diamond left his post at the Surrey County Asylum to open a private asylum in Twickenham, which he operated until his death in 1886. He seems to have stopped taking portraits of his patients at this time. What was acceptable in a public institution for the poor was viewed as a breach of propriety for the families of well-off private patients.

Portrait of a patient, Surrey County Asylum, 1855, Dr. Hugh Welch Diamond, The Royal Photographic Society Collection, National Media Museum

Portrait of a patient, Surrey County Asylum, 1855, Dr. Hugh Welch Diamond, The Royal Photographic Society Collection, National Media Museum

As both a doctor and a photographer, Diamond embodied the new humanitarianism and the belief in scientific observation of the Victorian age. Through his portraits he sought to reveal a connection between his patients’ disturbed minds and their physical appearance.

Today, they still reach out to touch us – mute yet eloquent testimony to compassion and suffering. As Diamond wrote:

The photographer needs in many cases no aid from any language of his own, but prefers to listen, with the picture before him, to the silent but telling language of nature.

See our full set of Dr. Hugh Welch Diamond’s portraits of patients on Flickr

Further reading and interesting links

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