Last year we were thrilled to receive a heartfelt thank you letter from an inpatient in Swindon. Published here for the first time, architect Toby Carr shares his story of how art helped him through his hospital treatment following a shock diagnosis…

It’s Saturday morning, the first Saturday of the year. I’ve woken up early with the lights on and the sound of beeping machines and the faint smell of toast wafting around as the daily routine of the hospital ward swings into action.

I’m on day six of a prescribed six-week course of IV antibiotics following a shock diagnosis of bacterial meningitis, which I contracted whilst driving home on the M4, and from whose fatal and life-changing impacts I have had a very lucky escape following critical treatment given by paramedics.

I’m in Swindon. Not necessarily somewhere I’d choose to be on a Saturday morning as I’ve no connection with the place. My condition has stabilised, I feel well and can walk around but can’t leave the hospital. I muse about what I might normally be doing on a Saturday morning if I’m not pursuing my strange addiction to throwing myself down fast flowing rivers or wild seas in a kayak. I’d probably go for a walk, get a coffee and maybe visit a gallery. I enjoy looking at artworks and their potential to transport you away to a different place.

Bruce McLean, Hot Slick, 1989. Part of the Paintings in Hospitals collection.

Bruce McLean, Hot Slick, 1989. Part of the Paintings in Hospitals collection.

I’ve spent a lot of time in hospital over the years due to a genetic condition that has developed into a series of life-threatening illnesses and complex treatments both for myself and my brother who sadly died as a result of the condition a year ago.

This hospital is a large, grey building on the edge of Swindon and I know, having been wheeled around its long corridors in beds and chairs for various scans and tests over the past week, it has an art collection. I decide to instigate my non-kayaking Saturday morning activity and set out to peruse the works on display and pick my favourites.

The first painting is directly outside the ward entrance, a vibrant and striking print by Bruce McLean, whose collaged depictions of classical figures against a thick purple sky and blazing sun put me on a beach somewhere in the Mediterranean. A long way from the murky skies and flat planes of the Wiltshire downland.

Sarah Morris, Freemont Street Experience, 2000. Part of the Paintings in Hospitals collection.

Sarah Morris, Freemont Street Experience, 2000. Part of the Paintings in Hospitals collection.

The next artwork is a striking geometric print whose colours seem to dance and jostle for attention against the backdrop of a night sky. Titled ‘Fremont Street Experience’, it is by British-born American artist Sarah Morris. I see vending carts, snack stalls and kiosks. It’s exciting, flashy, and a bit edgy.

Ambling onto the floor below, there are several works. I spend a bit of time looking at an emergency procedure notice in case it is a work on loan from the Saatchi Gallery. The one I pick out is by Brendan Neiland, an English artist, a Professor of Painting and a Royal Academician. It’s a screenprint entitled ‘Alice’s Garden, Christchurch’. It depicts a view from a luscious garden with what look like fig trees and other foliage framing a view towards a part open glazed patio door. The reflections depicted in the glass panes are sublime and complex. It is hard to grasp how this has been achieved with a screenprint. I can hear ice clinking in glasses and the start of a relaxed day in the garden.

Brendan Neiland, Alices Garden, Christchurch (left). Pat Savage, Travelling Circus on Chipstead Common, 1981 (right). Part of the Paintings in Hospitals collection.

Brendan Neiland, Alice's Garden, Christchurch (left). Pat Savage, Travelling Circus on Chipstead Common, 1981 (right). Part of the Paintings in Hospitals collection.

On the floor below, I found a beautiful batik textile print by Pat Savage which shows a travelling fair pitched up at the back of a country pub. The simple colour pallet and almost stained glass-like quality of the batik had a familiar feel to it. I grew up in the countryside in rural Rutland and the informal composition of people, animals, pubs and vehicles reminded me of a version of home.

Further down the corridor, I find a monochrome painting composed entirely of tiny white hand-painted dots on a black background. It’s called ‘My Country’ and is by the Australian Aboriginal artist Maureen Hudson Nampitjinpa. It is scaleless and could represent a city plan from above, the cracked surface of a dried mud riverbed or the aged skin of a Rhinoceros. The description says it represents jagged rocky hills and a sacred site where ‘love magic took place…’ When a friend comes to visit, we spend a while staring at it, checking for hidden boobs and willies. We couldn’t see any.

Maureen Hudson Nampijinpa, My Country (detail), 2004 (left). Part of the Paintings in Hospitals collection. Jeanne Masoero, At an Instant, 1971 (right). On loan to Paintings in Hospitals courtesy of Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London.

Maureen Hudson Nampijinpa, My Country (detail), 2004 (left). Part of the Paintings in Hospitals collection. Jeanne Masoero, At an Instant, 1971 (right). On loan to Paintings in Hospitals courtesy of Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London.

The last painting is on the ground floor. It is by Jeanne Masoero and is a cheerful splash of eggy yellow. It had a gradient of intensity running to rivulets forming a diagonal but drippy edge across the paper. It is called ‘At an Instant’ and it reminds me how quickly things can change and how lucky I am to be alive.

I think the Paintings in Hospitals loan scheme is fantastic. It provided me with an escape from the dreary corridors to faraway places and memories. It reminded me of the joys of life beyond the hospital and uplifted my spirit and wellbeing. I went back to look at the paintings and prints I’d found, showing my friends and spending time (which I had lots of) looking at the works carefully. A privilege not often afforded. It felt like I had my own personal collection.

Thank you for this lovely experience.

In our 60th year, can you help us raise £60,000 to bring art, colour and inspiration to patients and carers?

Celebrating 60 years of Paintings in Hospitals in 2019.

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Toby Carr is an architect based in London currently on a journey to sea kayak in all the areas of the shipping forecast. Toby was awarded a 2018 Churchill Fellowship to undertake this challenge and to inspire others facing their own health and wellbeing difficulties. Follow his journey via his website and Twitter (@KayakForecast).