Art on Prescription

Someday by Gillian Ayres

‘Someday’ by Gillian Ayres, on display at the Menier Gallery as part of ‘Art In Large Doses’

Can design, architecture and environment contribute to healing? Clio Heslop visits an exhibition of paintings that might literally make you feel better…

The charity Paintings in Hospitals offers low cost loans of high quality original artwork to hospitals, clinics and mental institutions in England. For more than fifty years they have received donations from artists and benefactors to their archive of over 4,500 pieces, a selection of which is currently on display as ‘Art in Large Doses’ at the Menier Gallery in Southwark.

Pieces such as ‘A Day in the Park’ by Frank Kiely and ‘Poppy’ by Patrick Hughes have immediate impact but still allow the patient to form a relationship with them over time. The work is chosen to appeal to a diverse audience, whilst remaining visually challenging. Much of the children’s collection was chosen in collaboration with young people, and presents a fun selection of drawings, paintings, prints and animation without becoming patronising.

Siting art in medical environments is not a new idea; throughout history physicians have recognised the link between art and healthcare. Ancient Greek ‘Asclepia’ offered a sanctuary, with calm surroundings containing statues and mosaics to contribute to healing the mind and body. In The Renaissance Hospital: Healing the body and healing the souls Wellcome History of Medicine Reader, John Henderson, writes that the hospital was as much a part of the Renaissance splendour of a city as any other building. The Ospedale degli Innocenti, or hospital of the innocents, built in Florence in 1445 contained vibrant frescoes such as ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’ by Domenico Ghirlandaio (tutor of Michelangelo).

Closer to home, the importance of a stimulating environment was discussed during defining changes to the healthcare system in the nineteenth century. In ’Notes on Nursing: What is it and what it is not’, 1860 Florence Nightingale commented:

‘People say the effect [of art] is only on the mind. It is no such thing. The effect is on the body, too. Little as we know about the way in which we are affected by form, by colour, and light, we do know this, that they have an actual physical effect. Variety of form and brilliancy of colour in the objects presented to patients, are actual means of recovery.’

In today’s system of ‘evidence based medicine’, contemporary studies continue to examine how arts and healthcare have influenced each other. ‘A study of the effects of visual and performing arts in healthcare‘ by Rosalia Staricoff, found that exposing patients in the day unit at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital to art and live music resulted in lower blood pressure, shorter recovery time and fewer requests for painkillers. Conferences such as ‘From the Cradle to the Grave: Reciprocity and Exchange in the Making of Medicine and the Modern Arts‘  at the Exeter University Wellcome Centre for the History of Medicine earlier this year, considered the creation and display of art in hospitals from a medical, social and historical perspective.

Displayed alongside the artwork at the Menier Gallery are accolades from patients and their families, praising the Paintings in Hospitals scheme for introducing hope and creativity back into their lives. Of course, one would never seek a cure from a painter rather than from a doctor, but it’s hard to ignore the therapeutic benefits of art.

Clio Heslop is a summer intern at the Wellcome Trust.

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