Number 41 in our countdown of '70 Ways Art Improves Our Health' explores the work of the first artist ever to be employed by the NHS…

Following the Second World War, Edward Adamson worked with the British Red Cross Picture Library. Edward brought reproductions of famous paintings to hospitals, mostly tuberculosis sanitoriums at the time, and gave short talks about the works.

Edward was an artist, not a clinician. And he believed that the mind, as well as the body, should be cared for during medical treatment.

As the Red Cross programme was extended to mental asylums, the superintendent at Netherne Hospital, Surrey, asked Edward to establish regular art sessions for patients. Soon after, Edward became the first artist ever to be employed full time by the NHS at Netherne.

Edward Adamson (1911-1996)

Before the Mental Health Act of 1959, people living with mental health problems had no rights. At the time Edward began his work, mental health problems were still being treated with crude and brutal procedures, including lobotomies. He would often meet patients with shaved and bandaged heads after they had received unnecessary brain surgeries.

Edward’s art sessions were first used in controlled psychiatric experiments. Painting was prescribed to patients and their artwork inspected by psychiatrists. But for Edward creative expression itself was a form of healing and, in the 50s, the psychiatric element of the art sessions lessened.

From this point, Edward’s studio became a rare thing: a place where people living with mental health problems could be free to express themselves. He allowed people to create art in the ways they wanted, with the materials they wanted, without submitting the artworks for analysis.

The Adamson Collection at Netherne Hospital

The Adamson Collection began in 1946 when a patient gave Edward drawings made on toilet paper. Edward believed that exhibiting a collection of artworks by those labelled with mental illness could help highlight their humanity and diminish the stigma attached to them. The Collection now holds 5,500 objects, including drawings, paintings, ceramics, sculptures and more.

Edward was a true pioneer. He profoundly changed healthcare in Britain and was instrumental in establishing the British Association of Art Therapists in 1964. In 1984, Edward and his long-term partner and collaborator, John Timlin, published Art as Healing in the UK and the US. The book was all about Edward's work and the Collection, with images of 116 objects and the personal stories behind them.

Decades after Edward’s studio first opened, art therapy is now provided by trained professionals for a range of issues. His legacy lives on in the work of BAAT today and his influence can still be seen in the thousands of artworks in the Adamson Collection.

Follow our countdown on Twitter and Instagram...