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Last Updated: Friday, 8 December 2006, 11:46 GMT
You're never too old
Blake picture in South Kensington and Chelsea Mental Health Centre
Artist Quentin Blake has done 16 pictures for the centre

By Belinda Rhodes

He's best known for his eccentric illustrations in children's books but now artist Quentin Blake has turned his hand to painting for the elderly.

Images of grandmotherly figures swinging from trees and grandfathers relaxing in hammocks now adorn the walls of several elderly care institutions.

The humorous depictions of old age, mostly hung in mural size, form what Quentin Blake, the illustrator who gave form to some of author Roald Dahl's most loved children's characters, wryly calls "a parallel world in which things go slightly better".

Blake's art for the elderly

This new departure came about when the Nightingale Project, a small hospital arts organisation, was asked to help liven up the elderly wing of a west London mental health centre which was being refurbished. Co-founder of the project, art consultant Stephen Barnham, immediately thought of Blake.

"His drawings are so full of wit and humanity," he says. "Who better to deal with the fraught subject of old age?"

Inspired by the idea of a new audience, Blake, himself 74, began work on a set of drawings of elderly people engaged in amusing and joyous activities.

"I wanted to do something that emphasised the things the elderly can still do like reading, having lunch and talking to the family," says Blake. "But I also wanted to take it a bit beyond that, so you do see them dancing, weightlifting and arm wrestling."

Run riot

The resulting 16 paintings were reproduced in large format to fill the walls of a 19-bed ward in the South Kensington and Chelsea Mental Health Centre for elderly patients suffering from dementia and depression.

In addition to the Kershaw Ward pictures, Blake then produced one for each bedroom, in which some of his characteristic fanciful birds of paradise and multicoloured creatures make an appearance.

Dr Nick Rhodes
Pictures 'uplifting' says Dr Rhodes

Blake stresses that his images of old age are intended to be amusing not disrespectful, though he clearly enjoyed letting his wit run riot with the subject.

"It's like drawing motor cars," he says. "A slightly older, more bent model has more visual appeal. It's quite hard to draw a handsome young man."

Blake also hoped the work might do some good. The thinking behind the Nightingale Project's many art-in-healthcare initiatives is that a more attractive environment aids the healing process - an idea for which there is growing evidence.

One of things on Blake's mind as he set to work was his older brother, suffering from Alzheimer's in a nursing home in Scotland. He has since died. The former Children's Laureate describes that home as "a good, though dullish place" and was delighted to be able to donate a set of prints of the paintings from the London hospital. In the Kershaw Ward itself, the paintings have been warmly welcomed.

Joy

"They attract me so much," says one patient, pointing at a jolly man reclining on a tree branch. "He reminds me of my grandpapa."

Others describe them as "terrifically good", "a joy" and a "huge improvement" to what used to be a typically dreary institution.

Staff agree the artwork has completely changed the atmosphere.

Quentin Blake
Former Children's Laureate Quentin Blake
"To be in a more open, friendly, more stimulating environment is lovely and lends a therapeutic influence to patients' progress," says Dr Claudia Wald, a consultant in old age psychiatry. "It is also good for staff who spend long periods working with challenging patients."

The founder of the Nightingale Project, psychologist Dr Nick Rhodes, is delighted with the response.

"It has definitely humanised the place," he says. "Lots of patients have told me they find the pictures uplifting and pleasing."

The Kershaw pictures have already been installed in three other elderly institutions and Stephen Barnham is working to bring them, and other artworks into more healthcare facilities.

"We've had other enquiries," he says. "They could go all over the country and I think that would be a very good thing."


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Fantastic! I always loved these images from Roald Dahl books when I was younger, and the idea that they can be used and enjoyed by people of all ages is inspiring. I'll bet that a lot of the people who will see them will remember reading the books to their own children too.
Heather, Wolverhampton

This is great. It is well known that a stimulating environemnt can help dementia, depression and even chronic pain. We should have maore of this all over the coutry. I'm sure long-term care providers are already offering painting as a therapy - maybe we need master-classes from people such as Mr Blake.
Sandy, Derby, UK

I am a Community psychiatric nurse working with older people with mental health problems. i think mr Blake's pictures would brighten up our inpatient units and residential homes. How can we get copies please?
alice walters, Berkhampstead UK

This is fab! Why should children be the only ones to have artwork in their hospital wards?! As our population grows older, I think it is essential that we re-learn to value and cherish the more mature amongst us. It may also pay to remember that we'll all be old one day...
Liz, Wiltshire

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