Bethlem Royal Hospital in south London, one of the first institutions housing the mentally ill. Now well respected for its treatment and closely associated with King' College Hospital, it was once renowned for its cruelty and was the original madhouse, associated with false incarceration, isolation and brutal treatments. It admitted its first mentally ill patients in 1357, and was a dedicated mental asylum from the sixteenth century.
During the 18th century, Bethlem recognised the success of freak shows and invited the public to pay a penny to peer into the cells of the hospital and amuse themselves with the antics of the inmates. In 1814, 96,000 visitors took up the offer.
The notoriety of Bethlem made it a feature of cultural life. In Shakespeare's King Lear, Edgar disguises himself as a Bedlam Beggar - a former inmate licenced to beg on the streets of London, marked by a tin plate on the arm - in order to hide in England after his banishment. The artist William Hogarth (1697-1764) created The Rake's Progress, a series of eight paintings showing the decline and fall of Tom Rakewell, a profligate youth who wastes away a fortune in the brothels and gambling dens of London, ending up in debtors' prison and eventually in Bethlem. The fashionable woman in the picture shown here is one of the hospital's paying visitors, come to laugh at Tom's delusions. The story was made into an opera by composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) and poet WH Auden (1907-1973) in 1951, and in 1961 artist David Hockney (1937-) created stage designs for the performance, as well as his own print version of the story.