Rita Simon, Art Therapy Pioneer in NI

A Brief Professional History

Rita Mary Simon pioneered art therapy in psychiatric after-care in Britain in 1942 and introduced it into a number of hospitals in London and the Home Counties. Formative influences include six years’ training in art, a Freudian analysis, and further experience in Adlerian and Jungian psychotherapies. Before the National Health Service (NHS) was set up in 1948, she was employed directly by the National Association for the Prevention of Tuberculosis, by medical consultants, and by psychiatrists and medical superintendents of psychiatric and similar institutions. After the introduction of the NHS she worked in a psychiatric hospital, a hospital for the severely physically handicapped, residential homes for old people and for children in care, sanatoria, and a diagnostic school for autistic children, in England and in Northern Ireland. From 1952, she lived in Northern Ireland and practised art therapy there in a psychiatric hospital. On return to Britain, she introduced art therapy at the Astell Day Hospital, Cheshire, and after 1970 to the Health and Social Services in Northern Ireland and the Belfast Education Board. From 1975 to 1983 she provided regular short residential courses in art therapy through the Queen’s University of Belfast and through evening classes in a College of Further Education. 

The considerable variety of work in these contracts and in the Social Services Domiciliary Service provided valuable experiences of social aspects of mental and physical disability in the community, as did small groups such as a mother/child ‘play at home’ group and a child art group in a disturbed and violent suburb of Belfast. Between 1975 and 1995 Simon published two books and 18 papers.


Background Information

Sources of the Collection

Groups of patients in Simon’s studio, starting in London in 1942; adults and children in private practice; a small group of long-stay adults in a psychiatric hospital with chronic schizophrenic illness; adults in day hospitals, a health centre, general and special long-stay hospitals and sanatoria, geriatric wards and residential homes for children and the elderly; domiciliary work referred by the Northern Ireland Social Services; autistic children at a special school; normal adults and children who attended undirected community art groups similar in approach to those of patients.

Some other works came from short residential introductory workshops organized through the Department of Further Education, The Queen’s University Belfast; University College Dublin; The Mater Hospital Child Guidance Department, Dublin; the Northern Ireland Social Services Board; and elsewhere. The Symbolism Of Styles

Rita Simon has kindly provided the following reflections on the collection and on the principles which formed it.

The Styles 

The Collection provides extensive examples of eight art styles, which consist of, firstly, four distinct basic styles (ARCHAIC LINEAR, ARCHAIC MASSIVE, TRADITIONAL LINEAR and TRADITIONAL MASSIVE) and, secondly, four mixed or transitional styles in each of which two of the basic elements are contained together. The eight styles are represented by the following circle diagram.The development of styles in child art

All the art styles develop during childhood. The first to appear is the sensuous pleasure in gesture and making marks that we recognise in the huge scale and simple geometric shapes of ARCHAIC LINEAR art. Later this becomes enriched by the emotional effects of volume and florid colouring, typical of the ARCHAIC MASSIVE style. As children mature and respond to the appearance of external reality, hand and eye intuitively include some naturalistic effects, such as space and light, which diffuse the emotional intensity of simple shapes and heavy colours: the image is seen more objectively and the style is described as TRADITIONAL MASSIVE. In this style, relative importance is typically shown through the use of differential sizes. Finally, the maturing child takes interest in the factual aspects of their lives and represents these as best they can in the TRADITIONAL LINEAR style. Both of the ARCHAIC styles, together with the intuitive perceptions that shape TRADITIONAL MASSIVE art, are essentially formed by a prevailing mood that may be sensuous, emotive, or intuitive. But the fourth, TRADITIONAL LINEAR, springs from the intention to illustrate ideas: each object will be clearly outlined to distinguish it from any other, and the effect is formal and conventional, concerned with function rather than appearances.The psychological significance of the art styles.

The four basic styles, and the transitions from one to another, reflect all the ways in which reality is represented in art, but in addition, they also reflect the different ways in which reality is grasped and understood, either as an inner, subjective reality or as an external perceived and factual reality. Although all eight styles are particularly clear in pictorial art, their features inform all creative arts.

Round about 1967, consistent evidence provided by patients’ art styles regularly indicated to me a relation between each style and a corresponding attitude to life. Although an habitual style can be the hallmark of a successful artist, in a troubled patient a fixed attachment to one style has a significant effect upon mental health. As the styles correspond with those developing in childhood, they indicate the stage at which a patient’s psychic life has been disturbed or arrested. In therapy, any change in a patient’s habitual style provides the therapist with helpful information, uncontaminated by the patient’s or therapist’s wishes, fears, or projections and counter projections.

Rita Simon: Articles and Resources