Last year we began an ambitious project to explore and share Paintings in Hospitals' pioneering 60-year history and our charity's impact on the nation’s health and wellbeing.

Supported through the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the People, Paintings & Positivity project was intended to draw together narratives from Paintings in Hospitals’ archives, from our unique art collection, and from the stories of people involved, both past and present. We had planned for the People, Paintings & Positivity project to culminate in a free public exhibition during Creativity & Wellbeing Week 2020.

Sadly, due to the COVID-19 lockdown, it has not been possible to hold a public exhibition. However, in the spirit of positivity, we would like to share parts of our pioneering past, our stories, and some important pieces from our art collection with you here instead. We hope that this will give you a little insight into our charity's hidden history and offer deeper knowledge of how art can benefit our day-to-day mental and physical health.

Paintings in Hospitals founder Sheridan Russell, 1900-1991

The idea behind Paintings in Hospitals arrived in the early 1950s with our founder Sheridan Russell. Sheridan was Britain's first male almoner. The almoners were the pioneers of what we now call Social Work. They believed that medical treatment could be made better by improving aftercare and the care environment. Sheridan worked at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London and had started displaying original paintings in waiting rooms and wards. He noticed people’s reactions to these new artworks and began to see just how important art can be to our health and wellbeing.

With help from the Nuffield Foundation, Sheridan formalised 'Paintings in Hospitals' in 1959 and set out to create a special art collection. This would become the Paintings in Hospitals collection: the first and only national collection of art to support people’s physical and mental health.

Captain Russell. The identity card carried by Sheridan in wartime Italy. Sheridan as Yniold in Pelléas et Mélisande at the Boston Opera House, 1912.

Captain Russell. The identity card carried by Sheridan in wartime Italy (left). Sheridan as Yniold in Pelléas et Mélisande at the Boston Opera House, 1912 (right).

Sheridan had become a social worker just a few years earlier after serving in British intelligence in World War II. Prior to that, he had been a virtuoso cellist taught by composer Claude Debussy (who also diagnosed Sheridan as having a hearing impairment). On Monday 6th April 1970, Sheridan was a guest on BBC Radio’s Desert Island Discs. In a short clip, the only part of the programme still in existence, Sheridan speaks about his early life as a cellist, becoming a medical social worker and starting something called ‘Paintings in Hospitals’.

Sheridan Russell on Desert Island Discs, BBC Radio 4, April 1970.

As Head Almoner at the National Hospital, Sheridan was passionate about improving the care environment, so he took it upon himself to change the type of art made available to patients:

“I got rather tired of the copies one sees...you know, those posters. I thought the real thing was so much better. So, I got a few friends of mine: Epstein, Matthew Smith, and people like that, to lend me their paintings. And I stuck them up all over the hospital.”

David Walsh, Blue Green Table Piece, 1960. One of the very first artworks to join the Paintings in Hospitals collection.

David Walsh, Blue Green Table Piece, 1960. One of the very first artworks to join the Paintings in Hospitals collection.

“At first, I had quite a lot of trouble but, eventually, it was approved. And it was going very well, so well that the Nuffield Foundation got interested and allowed us to start a thing called Paintings in Hospitals.”

In just over ten years, Sheridan expanded Paintings in Hospitals from the National Hospital to 42 other hospitals. As the Desert Island Discs presenter says, it was clear that people were realising that Paintings in Hospitals was both: “Good for the patient and good for the painters.”

National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in the 1960s

Where it all began... The National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in the 1960s.

Through the years, Sheridan inspired more people to see the importance of art in healthcare. Sir Dennis Proctor (former Chair of Tate), Roger de Grey (former President of the Royal Academy of Arts) and many more Patrons, trustees and supporters joined the Paintings in Hospitals mission. Together, they helped our charity’s impact grow.

Sheridan believed that everyone should be able to experience the benefits of the arts. Even after leaving the medical world, he went back to playing cello in concerts for children and charities. By the 1980s, Paintings in Hospitals had grown to provide art to hospitals and other types of healthcare across England. And in 1991, we provided seed funding for Paintings in Hospitals Scotland, which has since become Art in Healthcare.

Life Under Water 4 and ...5 by Quentin Blake. Part of the Paintings in Hospitals collection. © courtesy of the artist, Paintings in Hospitals

Quentin Blake, Life Under Water 4 and Life Under Water 5. Part of the Paintings in Hospitals collection.

Sheridan died in 1991. But his legacy lives on. The Paintings in Hospitals art collection, which began as just a few borrowed paintings, has grown to include nearly 4,000 artworks by world-renowned artists in many mediums. Today, you can experience our work in 180 health and social care spaces across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

We want to hear from you:

  • How do you think Paintings in Hospitals has influenced the development of the arts-in-health sector in the UK?
  • What is your most memorable artwork from the Paintings in Hospitals collection?
  • Do you have any stories or exchanges with artists/staff/patients about Paintings in Hospitals that you can share?
  • What do you think has been Paintings in Hospitals' greatest achievement?

Let us know on Twitter (@artinhospitals) or send us an email.

Watch and read more from People, Paintings & Positivity: