Dame Stephanie Shirley is an entrepreneur, philanthropist and Patron of Paintings in Hospitals. After founding a highly-successful, all-woman software company in the 1960s, she retired in 1993 to focus on philanthropy. Since then the Shirley Foundation has made over £67 million in grants to a range of causes including research to explore the relationship between art and people with autism. Here Dame Stephanie tells us why she believes art is so important to our daily lives...

This is not going to discuss art therapy – the medicine of the creative process in art – one of several medicines to create peace in the patient’s mind. But rather how two or three-dimensional artistic images encourage reflection – we meditate on them and ‘listen’ to what they have to tell us. It is not that some heal and others do not. It is not that bright colours cure depression (would that it were so easy!), or help conquer fear when our bodies fight and we contemplate our own mortality.

I’m going to focus on art itself which addresses people’s inner, emotional lives. The non-material side of life is a basic human need and indeed a human right – a necessary component of both mental and physical health. The power of art is extraordinary. It can be held quietly and unpossessively in the attention, ‘eternity in a grain of sand’, yet is a steady, visible, enduring good in an unreligious world. Art enhances daily life and reduces its many stresses. It feeds the spirit.

The ancient Greeks believed that contact with mosaics and sculpture could heal both mind and body. Florence Nightingale is quoted as saying:

Variety of form and brilliancy of colour in the objects presented to patients are actual means of recovery.”

And the whole idea of art as a route to health and wellbeing has been seriously explored since the 1980s. Chelsea & Westminster Hospital was the first, or the first I heard of, hospital to measure art to improve clinical outcomes and inspire better health and wellbeing for everyone. It measured the reduction in medication and length of patients’ stay in hospital.

A now classic study in the Royal Marsden Hospital showed that 74% of patients, carers and visitors believed that artworks should be regularly refreshed. Artwork loans from Paintings in Hospitals make it easy and affordable to do this. Whenever a space changes function, the artwork can also change.

As a Patron, I have given Paintings in Hospitals a collection of paintings suitable for those with autism. Reactions are sometimes totally unexpected. A very quiet John Miller painting appealed to one autistic boy to the point of obsession. He liked it. He licked it. Another autistic adult felt all over a statue in much the same way as a blind visitor did.

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Millennium Blue II, 2000

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Millennium Blue II, 2000. Donated to the Paintings in Hospitals collection by Dame Stephanie Shirley.

Paintings in Hospitals, in partnership with the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art, did a study of what people with autism like to look at, and why. That informed Paintings in Hospitals’ approach to working in new environments such as autism care homes and schools. People with autism respond to visual rather than aural experiences so art provides an extra channel of communication and is therapeutic as well as decorative and sometimes educational.

Works of art I chose specifically for those with autism were characteristically inspirational, hopeful, developmental, calm and serene rather than stimulating or challenging. Art also provides focal points that help such vulnerable people find their way around. I have also bought and donated to Paintings in Hospitals items (such as a Mary Fedden canvas of a cheery cat) which seemed especially suited for a children’s ward.

I believe in the importance of art and the contribution it makes to all our lives. Long may Paintings in Hospitals continue its marvellous work.

In Paintings in Hospitals' 60th year, can you help us raise £60,000 to inspire better health and wellbeing for patients and carers across the country?

Celebrating 60 years of Paintings in Hospitals in 2019.

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Dame Stephanie Shirley CH is an IT entrepreneur and philanthropist. She arrived in Britain as an unaccompanied child refugee in 1939. Frustrated by the male-dominated business world, she founded her own software company (now Xansa plc) in 1962 with just £6. Early in her career, she went by the name 'Steve' and employed almost exclusively women until the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act. Dame Stephanie retired in 1993 to concentrate on philanthropy and since then her charitable foundation has made over £67 million in grants to a range of causes including autism research, a cause she is drawn to through her late son Giles who was autistic. Dame Stephanie is a Patron of Paintings in Hospitals; her generous support of the charity over several years has been invaluable.

Find out more about Dame Stephanie via her website (www.steveshirley.com) and by following her on Twitter (@DameStephanie_) and Instagram (@damestephanie_).