Sandra Bruce-Gordon, director of Paintings in Hospitals, shares her earliest memories of a painting and how art got her through coronavirus isolation...

The noise of the gulls is deafening as they screech and cackle, soaring above the ocean waves, is the colony angry or just hungrily anticipating a feast of fish? Belligerent with their flying, squawking an alarm to those less worthy predators that may lie in wait.

I can taste the salt on my lips thrown up from the waves that seem to be rising higher and higher, the foam and spray seeming to beat to the sound of the gulls. Sometimes I try and count the gulls – how many in the colony, will they make this journey again will their hunt be successful? Sometimes the waves look angry almost enraged, the sea becoming a boiling frenzy of movement back and forth.

I have watched this scene from childhood; sometimes it frightens me, sometimes it enthrals and uplifts me. It is evocative. The power of a painting.

The painting is by the English artist Vernon Ward who lived for most of his life in Hampstead and I often wonder (whilst understanding) what inspiration drew him to the sea and to his painting ‘Over the Waves’.

Vernon Ward, Over the Waves

Vernon Ward, Over the Waves

This is the first painting I remember seeing, I think it belonged to my grandmother. The painting is not an original, Ward’s artworks were often reproduced as fine art commercial prints and among those who favoured Ward was Solomon and Whitehead, whose mission statement, “Making art available for the enjoyment of everyone” is something that I very much support.

‘Over the Waves’ hanging proudly in the hallway of the family home has witnessed the passing of time and many landmark occasions. My 21st birthday, my leaving the house to be married, my parents' golden wedding anniversary, my grandmother, and my father’s passing. Now, yet unhung in my home it witnesses the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdown, my starting a new job as director of Paintings in Hospitals and my struggling with isolation. It is the power of this painting and others that got me through.

There was much debate in my circle of friends over who would have it better during the lockdown, those that lived with someone or those that lived alone? I guess we now know the answer; none of us has it easy.

I have lived on my own for many years so being alone was not something new. This would be easy I thought. Even when my exhibition bookings, ballet, and theatre trips were cancelled there was no epiphany that lockdown might not be so simple. Being on your own or alone is vastly different from being isolated, and it is the latter I struggled with.

Irene Walker, Moody Skies

Irene Walker, Moody Skies

I struggled being kept apart from friends, long telephone calls, Zoom or Google Hangouts (all a newly learned skill set and vocabulary) helped, but I missed the non-verbal communication – eye contact, facial expressions, and gestures.

I struggled with the concept of wearing a mask while smiling at someone, praying that my eyes were smiling. I said “thank you” to those who served me in shops; “thanks for working”, although I should perhaps have said “thank you for talking to me, this is the first person to person conversation I’ve had in a long time”.

I lost the ability to concentrate while at the same time not being able to switch off. I could not watch television; I had forgotten how to read. My creative expression was confined to colouring books. My lack of engagement in creative and artistic activity had affected my wellbeing.

Visual art interventions have been proven to reduce anxiety and improve mood. I reconnected with my art following a visit to the loft; there I found many old friends who had not been affected by the pandemic, who were free from restriction and together with their expressiveness lifted my mood.

Hugh Abernathy, Twecks, 2020

Hugh Abernathy, Twecks, 2020

A study by neurobiologist and University College London Professor Semir Zeki found that looking at a work of art can have the same psychological effect as the euphoric experience of romantic love. Or put another way looking at something you consider to be beautiful results in increased levels of dopamine which is the neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centres. Art can bring about emotional reactions in the viewer, it can change your perception and perspective about things, it can open your mind and enhance and alter your view of life.

Thank goodness for my paintings. As I write I look across at Irene Walker’s ‘Moody Skies’ and immediately I’m back on the Firth of Clyde. I look at the fantastic light and remember other times; I am living the power of the painting.

I am about to go to my first socially distanced barbecue. More importantly, I bought a painting this morning: an original oil on canvas by Hugh Abernethy. Title: Twecks. I have high hopes that it will help me through this pandemic.

I am proud to be director of Paintings in Hospitals and of the work the charity does. You can struggle with isolation when in hospital or ill and I have personally witnessed the power of paintings in care homes. Our work has never been more important. Please continue to support us.

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Sandra Bruce-Gordon is director of Paintings in Hospitals, leading on the charity's strategy and vision. Sandra has worked on the development of cultural services for the past 20 years. Starting her career in Theatre Management, she latterly ran her own consultancy business. Sandra was awarded the Fellowship of the Royal Society of Arts in 2018 for her work preserving cultural venues.