Robin Stemp looks at a project intended to brighten the environment of our hospitals and which takes art out of the rarefied atmosphere of the art gallery.

The two immutable fixtures in our lives are birth and death, the rest is unsure. In among the mass of unknown, the uncharted happenings, illness will, at some point, be a distinct possibility; either a grim hand-to-hand fight between life and death or, more probably, a dull slog along the corridors of a hospital, between tests, x-rays, injections, and the interminable wait. We rush to get there on time in order to sit about, waiting our turn, and until recently the areas in which we spent those mind-bendingly frustrating periods of our lives were as dreary as the time spent in them. Now attitudes towards aesthetics have changed, and the acceptance of the idea that the sick are able to endure surroundings which no one would suffer for a minute in good health has, thankfully, been discredited.

Edward Wolfe, San Rogue, 1970, (50.8 x 76.2cm)

There is still some way to go before all hospitals are part of this new scheme of things, but slowly the fact that the way things look is important is gaining credence, with the patient thought of as an individual who is best looked after in an atmosphere at least cheerful, at best beautiful. That beauty can be an aid to healing has always been an obvious fact, but now it is penetrating even the depths of the NHS. And now, thanks to a remarkable organisation, Paintings in Hospitals, it is quite commonplace for hospitals to leaven the dough of purely functional concrete and glass by the putting up of works of art on its walls.

What happens to an organisation which becomes so successful that it is in danger of changing dramatically into another kind of thing altogether? Paintings in Hospitals was started in 1960 by Sheridan Russell, with a Nuffield Foundation Grant. There are many stories from those who claim to have first put the idea to Sheridan Russell, but he was the force who put the idea into action.

Bernard Myers, Autumn, 1977, (86.4 x 68.6cm)

Sheridan Russell, whose career has taken in the professional playing of the cello, intelligence work in Italy during the last World War, and an appointment at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases, London, is an appropriate founder figure. Throughout his life he has been an instigator of good ideas: Chamber Music in Schools in 1965, Art in Churches 1979, and Paintings in Hospitals in 1960.

In 1959, Russell, who was then the almoner at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases in Queen Square, Bloomsbury, was in the habit of hanging contemporary paintings in waiting-rooms, corridors and in the wards, and after a while he extended this informal exhibition to the Maida Vale Hospital. At that time the pictures were on loan, either from the artists, galleries or the owners of the paintings, who generously lent to Sheridan Russell, who discovered that more interest was engendered by the seeing of originals than even the best reproduction. That the artist was living, gave the picture added sparkle that the most prestigious copy could not emulate.

Colin Haynes, La Escala, Spain, 1964, (61 x 73.7cm)

In an introduction to the charity’s exhibition at Sotheby’s, Forty Years of British Art, Sir Michael Stewart, the Chairman, points out that more people walk through one large hospital every day than visit a large national gallery. To present art to those who would never intend to visit a gallery, but who have to attend hospital, seems infinitely sensible. Without, it should be underlined, in any way force feeding the public. The ‘art is good for you’ campaign is as destructive as any other in which one is made to feel patronised. There is no reason at all why art, more than drama, football or gardening, should be better for the soul; the sad fact is that whilst most interests are represented in many homes, the visual arts are not, and the general public is not exposed in the same way that they have access to sport or the cinema or music. When they are, there is often an amazed and pleased response. That many will walk past without looking at the work, regarding it as part of the decoration, is inevitable, but for every nine – let us say – who are indifferent, at least one will stop and take note.

The collection is large and generous in scope, and the list of artists impressive. The policy of buying art for its intrinsic value and not with an eye to any future financial gain, means that the collection includes many works by little-known artists, as well as those by the established. The problem inevitably arises of what to do with those works which have risen in value to such an extent that it would be a financial risk to put them on relatively unguarded public display. Should a painting bought because it was a beautiful object in 1960 for £50, be reassessed because suddenly, due to fashion, it is worth thousands, be immediately removed out of harms way? I think not, and neither does Pauline Henriques, Painting in Hospitals curator. There are risks involved in anything worthwhile, and sensible precautions are taken, such as the use of special screws to fasten the work to the walls. It should be said that, at the time of writing, most of the work – even that of the well-known – is not in this dizzying category. Even so, the feeling is that a painting bought for its aesthetic appeal should take its chance with the rest. In a collection where looks are the criteria, it is the look of the thing which is important, not the name of the artist. Otherwise, if the collection is run on the lines of the more commercially minded, it will be only the second eleven which will decorate the hospital walls and the whole point of the exercise will be lost. So far, I was told, no picture has cost more than £500, but inevitably the amount allowed for purchases has not kept up with the rising price of art and the association is grateful to those who have allowed them to buy at less than market value. One cannot rely on the kindness of others for ever, and the charity, like most others, needs more money if it is to keep up the standards set during the last 30 years.

James Fitton, The Park, 1962, (43.2 x 63.5cm)

I went to see the headquarters of Paintings in Hospitals on a hot, dry, dusty London midday in high summer. At the moment they are in a building in Portland Place, once the house of Robert Adam, and restored with a few anachronisms, to its former state. We went upstairs to the large room where some of the work is stored, and where the official picture restorer, Victoria Messel, works. Most paintings come back to be surface cleaned, covered with nothing more than the inevitable thin layer of daily grime. One I was shown had recently arrived back from the waiting room of a lung cancer clinic and was ingrained with thick, brown sludge, showing graphically the effects of cigarette smoke. A few are damaged, mostly by a fast-moving trolley in a long corridor. There is little vandalism, proving the adage that if the best is given, most of us will respond with appropriate good behaviour.

The taste of the buying committee is wide ranging, but within the broad sphere are certain limitations. Views from windows are popular, landscapes, particularly rolling hills or seascapes which are restful and give the imagination full rein. Interiors, where there is, on closer inspection, something more to entertain the eye – as in the enormously popular The Studio by Fred Uhlman, where the onlooker is engaged with following the woman who, having crossed the room, is gazing out over the town to the view beyond.

Michael Kenny with a maquette for a wall sculpture for the outside wall of Addenbrookes Hospital, Cambridge

To return to the question of how much to manage an organisation which has grown beyond the bounds first imagined for it, Paintings in Hospitals has become, possibly, a victim of its own success in that it cannot go on as it has done for the past 30 years. Run by a largely volunteer staff, who work (in theory) part-time, but who it is obviously apparent give their heart and soul to the venture, it is now thought that a more ‘professional’ approach is appropriate, with a full-time and paid staff. These would also involve splinter groups throughout the country, and one can see the reasoning behind the idea. This is the aim of the charity; whether it actually transpires is another matter and depends on many things including, of course, the financial climate and the problem of how to keep the structure intimate while at the same time maintaining professionalism, but not at the expense of human contact. It is this human contact which acts as a spark to other similar ideas, such as the scheme funded by the Gulbenkian Foundation to furnish hospices with prints, and the William Hobbayn Gallery at Ealing Hospital. The director of the gallery is Dr Raphael Eban, who has enthusiastically pushed the idea for the beginning. A hundred thousand people a year pass through the hospital; this is the place to establish a gallery to bring painting to the people. The sponsors of the gallery include the Yasuda Fire and Marine Insurance Company of Tokyo, the buyers of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in 1987. A large well-lit structure, the gallery is an important step into bridging the chasm between art and the people, and a venture which deserves every encouragement.

Anthony Eyton, Beach - Hampton Mass, 1975, (61 x 48.2cm)

Seen from the train, across fields, Addenbrookes Hospital is a mess. A gigantic litter of box-like elevations, dull and grey, it was, however, the first hospital outside of London to take advantage of the Paintings in Hospitals scheme, and is now turning the long, dreary corridors into art galleries. Art is everywhere, and the depressing concrete wastes have flowered into bright gardens of colour and form. The main entrance has undergone a major upheaval in recent years, and is now a shopping precinct, let to and managed by British Airways. More restrained is the immediate entrance, where interest is caught by a bas relief showing aspects of Cambridge and the surrounding county, and watercolours and prints of the hospital now and as it was on the old site. This leads on into other areas where paintings and prints are grouped to form imaginative spaces of colour and interest. From the beginning of the new plan to revamp the hospital, the General Manager has included Dr John Stark and Graham Cannon, the two men responsible for the pictures on the walls. Cannon, formerly House Governor and Secretary, in modern parlance the Chief Executive and now retired, and Stark, still working on the staff, are the instigators, inspiration, and to their credit, the workers and picture-hangers for the Addenbrookes Art Project, a scheme which was launched to collect and exhibit work for the hospital.

The visual arts are not confined to what can be hung in a frame. For a particularly dreary inner courtyard between high buildings, they are planning to continue the gardening already started and possibly some sculpture. It is not simply a question of hanging nice things in a frame, as in a gallery, but the whole atmosphere generally engages their attention. A waiting room, in the casualty department, a place where scenes of bleak tragedy are played out every day, has been turned, with imaginative lighting, good colours and neutral pictures, into a place neither bland nor heartlessly jolly, but attractively sympathetic. No one expects a picture on a wall to be able to resolve a crisis, to heal the sick, to transform a life, but their presence gives out messages that someone has taken the trouble to think about what might be appropriate, and over and above the absolutely necessary.

Fred Uhlman, The Studio, (50.8 x 76.2cm)

A long corridor leading to the maternity wing was turned, by a group of local sixth formers, into a cavalcade of clowns. Given an absolutely free hand, and some household paint, they chose to do clowns, and the effect is brilliantly colourful – and fun. You don’t want gloom and doom in every corner. Other murals have been painted by members of staff and parents of child patients. In keeping with their self-imposed brief to include and reflect the life of the world outside, the Art Project has a collection of work by local artists and members of the University of the Third Age and so on. With enormous energy the two men collect and exhibit the visual arts, investigate the possibility of commissioning and throw out ideas – such as the area devoted to photographs, open to local photographers. Important to the collection are the generous gifts made by artists such as John Bellany, whose ordeal after a liver transplant he exhaustively noted, the act of drawing adding to the healing process. The large painting of the artist in bed, attended by his wife, helen, a judge wearing a black cap, crossed out, and a policeman without his trousers, and reminiscent of Nolan’s captors of Ned Kelly, is intended as a message of hope, a testament to the hospital and  a large and generous thank you letter. It is the Art Project’s attention to detail which is impressive, such as the imaginatively arranged groups of abstracts along a corridor, well-hung paintings on loan from Portman Place, or the plaques which, in lettering by David Kindersley, commemorate various stages in the growth of the hospital. Overall, and bit by bit, the gaunt rain-washed concrete wastes are being made to look not just human, but at times beautiful. The opportunities are endless and ‘the possibilities’, state Cannon, are terrific and we want to make the best of them.’

Please note: All illustrations in this feature were reproduced courtesy of Paintings in Hospitals and Sotheby's.