Holloway Sanatorium – garish or gorgeous?

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Holloway Sanatorium was in a parlous state when we visited it in about 1992 as part of the RCHME Hospitals Project. Although the process of decay was sad to see, the stunning interior decoration was still impressive. In 1997-8 the main rooms in the building were restored, the artwork re-instated and the site developed as a gated residential estate, rebranded Virginia Park.

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Elevation of Holloway Sanatorium printed in The Graphic, 2 June 1877
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Recreation Hall, Holloway Sanatorium, W. H. Crossland architect, photographed c.1992

The sanatorium was founded by Thomas Holloway, of Holloway’s Pills and Ointment fame, for the mentally afflicted of the middle classes. Its architect was W. H. Crossland, who won a competition for the design in 1872. The foundation stone was laid by Holloway’s wife Jane in 1873.  Although it was described as nearly finished in 1877, it was another seven years before the first patients were admitted in 1884, and the official opening ceremony did not take place until 15 June 1885. By then Thomas Holloway was dead, the project having been completed under the direction of his brother-in-law, George Martin Holloway.

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‘All exuberance of ornament and expensive detail is avoided’ was the claim, but the building itself rather belies that statement. [1]

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The sanatorium was intended for the middle classes only, with a particular view to accommodating professional men who were thought likely benefit from a year’s residence in a quiet rural neighbourhood. [2] This was incidentally the type of patient most likely to be able to afford the highest rate of fees for such a stay. A year was the maximum length of stay permitted. Certain conditions were excluded, including those deemed incurable, so no hopeless cases or, in the language of the time, epileptic, paralytic, and uncleanly subjects were all inadmissible. [3]

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Holloway thoroughly researched asylum planning and the treatment of the mentally ill before announcing a competition for the design. He was said to have visited asylums at home and abroad, and consulted numerous architects and the members of the medical profession.

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Initially there was accommodation for 200 patients, divided into four classes, 1st, 2nd, sick and feeble, and excited. All day-rooms, dormitories and single rooms had a south and south-western aspect. Attendants’ rooms were placed between day-rooms and dormitories with a glass window or doors of communication that allowed them to keep the patients under observation.

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Some of the interior decoration, notably the ceiling of the recreation hall, was carried out by the Scottish architect and designer John Moyr Smith. The walls of the dining hall had frescoes after Watteau, variously reported as being executed in the National Art Training School at South Kensington under the direction of Edward Poynter or by James Imrie, though both statements may be correct.  When the sanatorium opened the medical press thought the wall decorations betrayed the influence of ‘Japanese artistic methods’. [4]

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Above is one of  the Watteau-inspired paintings in the dining-hall, painted on canvas rather than frescoed, with a pastoral scene of grazing sheep in the lunette over it.

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The richness of the interior for a mental hospital is perhaps rivalled only by Craighouse in Edinburgh, at least in Britain. Tellingly, Pugin was consulted by Holloway in the early stages of the project. As well as the huge recreation hall and dining-hall, according to one report the sanatorium was intended to have a billiards room, thirteen day rooms, and no less than four libraries for the use of the patients, ‘well stocked with readable books’ (always the best sort). [5]

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The decorative scheme certainly seems to give more than a nod to Pugin, with echoes of the Houses of Parliament, and at the time the sanatorium opened The Builder considered that its only equal in richness was the House of Lords. It fell foul of the next generation of architects – C. R. Ashbee commented that it was ‘very garish and ghastly, but appropriate’. [6]

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The hammer-beam roof of the recreation hall evokes Tudor splendour, modelled on examples such as the hall at the Middle Temple or Hampton Court Palace. Crossland had produced something similar for his Rochdale Town Hall.

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The central grand entrance and staircase were originally intended only to be used on special occasions. Every inch was covered with gilding or bright colour, apart from the parquet wood floor and the marble top of the staircase balustrade.

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In the early 1990s the portraits were the most badly decayed, and there were chunks of painted plaster lying on the floor. Depicting ‘distinguished persons’ the portraits were said to have been the work of Ernest Girardot and others. [7]

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The portrait above may be of Thomas Holloway himself, watching over the patients and staff. His portrait, and that of his wife, graced the interior, along with his coat of arms and family monograms, a constant reminder of the founder.

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  1. The Builder, 24 Aug 1872, p.665
  2. BMJ 20 June 1885, pp 1258-9
  3. The Graphic, 2 June 1877, p.521
  4. BMJ 20 June 1885, pp 1258-9: The Star, 18 June 1885, p. 4: British Architect, 26 June 1885, p.311
  5. Frome Times, 27 Nov 1878, p.3
  6. quoted in Anna Sheperd, Institutionalizing the Insane in Nineteenth Century England, 2015, p.24
  7. Illustrated London News, 5 Jan 1884, p.24

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