The History of the Arts, Health, and Wellbeing

For those in hospital, including staff and visitors as well as patients, the arts can offer a powerful positive contribution to health and wellbeing.

According to the charity, The King’s Fund, the combined history of art and healthcare began over 600 years ago, in the 14th Century.

At that time, healthcare was very closely aligned with the church so it comes as no surprise that art in hospitals was predominantly religious, allowing patients to pray to images of deities for absolution and good health.

By the 17th Century, art in hospitals had become a philanthropic venture for the nobility and aristocracy.

When King Charles II founded the Royal Chelsea Hospital, for example, he filled its great hall with royal portraiture and the hospital’s chapel features Resurrection by the artist Sebastiano Ricci.


This approach to art was common in many of Britain’s historic hospitals, especially those in London like Greenwich, Bethlem, and St Bartholomew’s, all of which are home to impressive works of art.

However, by the early 20th century, an ever-increasing understanding of medicine lead to a more clinical approach to everything (including decoration and architecture) resulting in little to no art being placed in hospitals.

In fact, art was actively dismissed by architects of the time such as Auguste Pierre, who asserted, “Decoration… hides the error in construction.”

According to The King’s Trust, “hospitals, wards and patients had to suffer environments in which colour and decoration were taboo.”

This remained the case until 1959, when Sheridan Russell fixed some artwork to a wall of a busy hospital corridor.

According to the charity, Paintings in Hospitals, this was their moment of creation: “Sheridan believed that everyone should be able to experience the health benefits of art, regardless of their situation or location.”

Since then more and more evidence has mounted in favour of the health and wellbeing benefits of art in hospitals.

The Welsh NHS Confederation has found that art in hospitals is beneficial in four main facets: patient care, healthcare environments, caring for caregivers, and community wellbeing.

According to the confederation, “The arts benefit patients by supporting their physical, mental, and emotional recovery, relieving anxiety and decreasing the perception of pain.

“In an environment where the patient often feels out of control, the arts can serve as a healing tool, reducing stress and loneliness and providing opportunities for self-expression.

“The arts create safer, more stimulating, supportive and functional environments in healthcare settings.

“Arts programming for caregivers creates a common, more normative environment, and offers caregivers an opportunity for creativity and self expression that allows them to process their experiences and emotions instead of carrying them home or into the workplace.

“Arts in health can benefit communities by supporting the promotion of prevention and wellness activities, improve knowledge, increase self-esteem and develop more effective coping mechanisms.”

In Cardiff and Vale UHB, the arts play a central role in our wellbeing strategy and their effects can be seen already.

Perhaps one of the most striking examples of how art has shaped the care we give can be found in Hafan y Coed, the adult mental health unit at University Hospital Llandough.

hafan y coed sycamore

Hafan y Coed is light, spacious, and welcoming, a truly ‘state-of-the-art’ hospital.

It houses a diverse and eclectic collection of sculpture, ceramics, photographs, prints, poems and paintings which can be viewed on a circular walk around the public spaces. The artworks were commissioned from artists from all walks of life, including service users, carers and staff, together with emerging and well-established artists.

There are gardens with outside sculptural seating, murals, and additional artworks can be found on the first floor. Please take time to share your thoughts at the end of your walk and leave a message on the Tree of the Imagination, which can be found in the main reception area.

hafan y coed mural

Elsewhere in the health board, art continues to form an integral part both of our identity and what we can offer to patients. The Hearth Gallery in Llandough, for example is a unique contemporary art space, situated at the heart of a clinical setting. It is believed to be the first of its kind in Wales.

On the wards, we have an ongoing partnership with organisations such as the Welsh National Opera, who kindly volunteer their time to sing with older patients. The patients, all of whom are aged between 70 and 90 not only enjoyed listening to solo items but also actively join in with the music by singing along and dancing.


Simone Joslyn, the UHB’s Engagement Lead, said, “Cardiff and Vale UHB is amassing an incredibly impressive portfolio of art, all of which has a demonstrably positive effect on the lives and care of our patients.”

“We’re constantly looking to increase our art offering and, this year alone, I’ve been part of many projects to that aim. Recently, some of the most inspiring are the pieces commissioned to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Rookwood Hospital.

“These included a tapestry by the artist Hâf Weighton and a beautiful poem by Regan Paddock about the staff that looked after her following a life-changing car accident.”

Rookwood haf

reagan poem

“What’s clear is the positive impact that most of the art throughout the health board has on the lives of the staff, patients and visitors. I hope that for the benefit of the wellbeing of our future generations that the arts become further integrated into healthcare settings so that we all have the pleasure of working, and being treated in, bright, stimulating and creative spaces.”

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