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Life size wax head of a melancholy insane woman, England, 1910-1940

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Is this what ‘madness’ looks like? This lifelike wax head, with its stringy black hair and bulging glass eyes, was probably made in the 1930s for an exhibit at Henry Wellcome’s Historical Medical Museum. Records from the museum suggest that wax models of ‘madwomen’ and ‘madmen’ were displayed with replicas of manacles and restraints used in the early 1800s at Hanwell Asylum, West London. The wooden stick at the base of this wax head suggests that it did once sit atop a life-size body, now lost. To an audience of the 1930s, this woman’s face would have immediately called to mind the ‘madwoman in the attic’ – the violent and deranged female character who haunted the edges of many Victorian novels. Compare the head with this excerpt from Charlotte Brontë’s Gothic romance Jane Eyre, where the heroine of gets her first good look at the ‘lunatic’ wife of Mr. Rochester: ‘What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight, tell.... but it was covered with clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face.... The maniac bellowed: she parted her shaggy locks from her visage, and gazed wildly at her visitors.’ Some asylum physicians in Victorian England used the popular image of the dishevelled, animal-like, house-bound ‘madwoman’ to argue that women with mental illness should always be treated in asylums rather than kept at home.

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Glossary: head

The part of the body that contains the brain, organs of sight, hearing, smell and taste.

Glossary: model - representation

Use for a scaled representation of an object or structure, usually three-dimensional. The item is often idealised or modified to make it conceptually easier to understand.

Glossary: psychiatry

A branch of medicine concerned with the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental illness.

Glossary: choler

Another word for yellow bile, one of the four humours - the fluids of the body whose balance was believed to be essential to well-being.

Glossary: melancholia

A category of mental illness from the Middle Ages to the 1800s. Melancholia expressed itself as dejection, anguish, sensations of mistrust, anxiety and trepidation with some hallucinations.

Glossary: mania

A category of mental illness from the Middle Ages to the 1800s. Those with mania experienced uncontrollability, euphoric highs and bouts of excessive energy.

Glossary: spleen

A term for a mental illness caused by too much black bile (one of the four humours) in the body. Used from Greek medicine until the 1700s. Those experiencing spleen had restlessness, anxiety, solitude, sudden fits of anger and laughing or crying without reason to.