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The Picture of Health: An introduction to Paintings in Hospitals

Works Like People II by artist Tom Ellis is a series of site specific artworks commissioned by national arts charity Paintings in Hospitals, ahead of Tom’s forthcoming show The Middle: Tom Ellis at The Wallace Collection, opening September 2016. In this blog Thomas Walshaw, Development, Communications & Events Coordinator for Paintings in Hospitals, describes his charity’s reason for being, its history, and why it’s more important than ever.

In 1959, in a busy little corridor of the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, Sheridan Russell fixed an artwork to the wall. Sheridan, a celebrated cellist and an almoner (a social worker in today’s terms), had recently started exhibiting works by contemporary artists in waiting rooms and wards around the hospital. He had noted the patients’ reactions to the new works and glimpsed an understanding of the important contribution art could have to people’s health and wellbeing.

National Hospital in the 1960's

It was at this moment in 1959 that Sheridan Russell founded our charity Paintings in Hospitals. With the help of the Nuffield Foundation, Sheridan set out to create a unique art collection: the first and only collection containing artworks chosen specifically to comfort and support patients and carers alike. Through the following decades, with the aid of Sir Dennis Proctor, former Chairman of Tate; Roger de Grey, former President of the Royal Academy of Arts and many other patrons, trustees and supporters, our art collection and our charity’s impact grew. Sheridan was passionate that everyone should experience the therapeutic benefits of art and in the 1980s we began to develop a regional network enabling care sites outside of London to access our collection.

Engagement workshop with artist Sean Michael at the Great Ormond Street Hospital

Today we work across England, Wales and Northern Ireland and care for a diverse collection of over 4,000 artworks, with pieces from artists of international importance including: Andy Warhol, Bridget Riley, Antony Gormley, Patrick Caulfield, Anish Kapoor, Helen Chadwick, Ian Davenport, Alexander Calder, and many more. In addition to loaning our artworks to health and social care providers, we also work with them and their patients to co-curate the displays and to implement creative engagement activities so that all involved can reap the most benefit.

05_Quentin Blake_Life Under WaterPeterborough City Hospital_

To some, exhibiting contemporary art in health and social care spaces seems novel, even radical. However, the links between art and health stretch all the way back to the Ancient Greeks, who believed that contact with statues and mosaics could heal both the body and the mind. In 1735 William Hogarth painted a large mural for the staircase at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London (Christ at the Pool of Bethesda) and157 years ago, Florence Nightingale stated in her Notes on Nursing that ‘the variety of form and colour in the objects presented to patients have a physical effect and are actual means of recovery.’ Though these actions and observations are centuries old, they are strikingly apt to our lives and our wellbeing today.

In recent years, a growing number of patients, researchers, academics and policy makers have also recognised that arts are integral to better health and wellbeing. There is an increasing body of clinical evidence which has shown that art can: reduce levels of anxiety, stress and depression; reduce patients’ length of stay in hospital; reduce their use of painkillers; and also increase staff morale. (A Study of the Effects of Visual and Performing Arts in Healthcare, 2004). Today, NHS England, the Care Quality Commission, and the Arts Council endorse much of what we do to promote positive thought, calmness and dialogue.

Jewels in Bird_Plane in a Fish by Martha Theos_Queen Alexandra Hospital

Paintings in Hospitals is thrilled to be working with the Wallace Collection to jointly commission Works Like People II, an exhibition of new paintings by British artist Tom Ellis, to be exhibited in four GP surgeries across London from 4 July until the end of November 2016. The Works Like People II project is specifically conceived with healthcare staff and their patients in mind, to enhance the care environment through the introduction and exploration of complex ideas surrounding comfort, familiarity and the differences between domestic and clinical spaces. The project utilises art’s ability to challenge and subvert to question notions of what a primary care space should be.


Our charity was founded on the belief that everyone, regardless of age, disability or illness, should have access to the benefits of visual art. Working with Tom Ellis and the Wallace Collection means that we can again ensure that even those who aren’t always able to visit national museums and galleries are still able to experience the very best in contemporary art.


By Thomas Walshaw, Development, Communications & Events Coordinator, Paintings in Hospitals

Paintings in Hospitals receives no Government funding and rely on grants, donations, and support from the public to continue its unique and important work. Paintings in Hospitals is a Registered Charity (No. 1065963)


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