Guy’s Hospital: A History of Art in Healthcare

We had the privilege to meet with Imogen and Marie Francais from Guy’s and St Thomas’ Trust Charity. They very kindly took us on a tour around St Guy’s hospital, emphasising their long-standing relationship with art. 

Here, we take some space to reflect on some of the best moments of the tour.  

Religious Origins of Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital 

Cimabue’s Cruxifix, 1277 

cimabue cross.jpg

The idea of art in hospitals isn’t new. Hospitals have their origins in religion and were founded among religious orders who had a duty to look after the sick and poor. 

Guy’s hospital was founded by Sir Thomas Guy, a philanthropist and governor of St Thomas’ hospital. It was St Thomas’ hospital which originally stood in Southwark and has its origins in the 12th century. St Thomas’ hospital was named after St Thomas Becket, and was an Augustinian monastic hospital which provided treatment for the poor, sick, and homeless. The Augustinians were a mendicant order – known for living a life of poverty similar to the Franciscans. 

St Thomas’ is one of the oldest hospitals in the UK. In the 12th century, religious imaes were an important part of the healing process. Patients would pray to patron saints of certain illnesses with the hope that they would intercede to God on their behalf. Images of Jesus on the cross were poignant reminders of Jesus’ suffering and presence. The cross pictured above was made by Cimabue in 1287 and would have hung in a Franciscan monastery.

Although modern day hospitals do not continue this practice in quite the same way, images are still used to create a positive healing environment and comfort patients. Eventually, St Thomas’ Hospital moved to Lambeth, but Guy’s, built originally to house the “incurables” remains in Southwark to this day.

The Chapel: Art as Community 

Images of the crafts in the chapel

Revd Mia Hilborn, The chaplain and head of spiritual healthcare at Guy’s, is very keen to implement a strong arts programme in the community. Currently, a group of students from King’s college had knitted some covers for the columns 

Every inch of the chapel celebrated some form of decorative craft: From the original stained-glass windows, to the hand embroidered kneeling cushions made by staff and patients. 

Walking into this chapel, I was instantly struck by a visual sense of community and a sense of comfort. We must remember that hospitals are spaces which need hope, and the chapel provided a perfect space for those of all faiths and beliefs to reflect.  

Guy’s effigy commemorates his burial place. It is fitting to have the founder of the hospital buried in its chapel and a reminder of the close community at Guy’s. The chapel was built in ____ it is still in use today.

Dermatology Ward: Art as Therapy 

The art for the Dermatology ward at Guy’s was designed specifically to induce a sense of calm for patients. 

Many of the treatments in the dermatology ward involved heat in some way, so the art used cooling water themes to counteract this discomfort for patients. 

An artist and poet collaborated with patients to write haikus about their conditions. These were then arranged onto a background of water and then pasted onto the walls of the ward’s entrance. In this way, patients were able to take control of their treatment space. 

This was a brilliant example of the benefits of site specific work.   

Guy’s Cancer Centre: Human Centred Design  

Guy’s Cancer Centre was designed Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners and specialist healthcare architect Stantec. It has won the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) London Awards and the ‘Best Building’ category at the London Civil Engineering Awards for its outstanding architecture and attention to detail. 


Gitta Gschwendtne’s chairs 

Walking into the centre, I was surprised to see that it didn’t look like a typical hospital. Gitta Gschwen designed the furniture in the waiting room, made with mesh metal to form shall groups of chairs. This created smaller and more private spaces for patients to wait with their families. 


Karel Marten’s Icons for the lift area 

Each floor as split into coloured ‘villages’, which corresponded to different treatments, and each floor was marked by specially designed iconography by Karel Martens. The design was very human centred. Each floor was connected by a lift featuring an interactive piece by artist Marilyn Newdecker. Inside each lift was a video monitor. As the lift moved, a video played mapped the trajectory through a rainforest. It was designed to comfort those scared of lifts 

We ended the tour with a trip to the interactive living room, designed by BAT studio. The theme of this room was the rainforest as escapism. The wall was panelled in bamboo, and above each seat was a wooden sound box. Each visitor had the option to choose the sound of a rainforest from around the world and listen to it. The room managed to be both private and open – a space where visitors could find a sense of calm among natural sounds and materials. 

Some members of our team enjoying the living room space! 

As beautiful and well considered this centre was, it is important to remember that this is a working hospital. It is important to design such beautiful spaces in order to provide some small comfort to those who need to access these spaces everyday for treatment, and their families. So many lives are affected by cancer and illness. A designer’s work in these centres proves that the public care about improving the experiences of these people. 

Many thanks to Laura Madeley for speaking to Imogen and arranging the tour for us. 

Find out more: Guys’ and St Thomas’ Trust and Guy’s Cancer Centre 

Sophia Luu