The NHS: A People’s History on BBC FOUR

On 1st July 2018 BBC FOUR broadcasts the first programme in a documentary series celebrating the 70th anniversary of the NHS. It focuses on people’s memories of the health service, and include an interview with Loraine Leeson. It also features the posters on health issues she produced with Peter Dunn in the 1970s. Some of these were in support of the campaign to keep Bethnal Green Hospital open, while others were produced with members of health workers’ unions for East London Health Project to warn people about the impending cuts to services at that time – one of these posters celebrated 30th anniversary of the NHS. A retrospective exhibition of this work was held at the ICA in May 2017.

East London Health Project 1978-80

Posters produced by Loraine Leeson and Peter Dunn in collaboration with the East London Trades Councils. 

Women Beware and Mental Illness copy

In 1978 the East London trades councils wished to disseminate information about health issues to the local population in light of the cuts being made to the National Health Service. They had a small amount of funding remaining from some recent campaigning, which they had originally intended to use for the production of leaflets. Dan Jones, who was also a local trades unionist and member of Tower Hamlets Trades Council had initially invited us to take part in the Bethnal Green Hospital campaign. As an artist in his own right he also understood the role of art in social change . Appreciating the commitment and political understanding that he felt we had shown in our work for the hospital, he proposed that the trades councils take the risk of developing a new, visual approach to the broader campaigning.

Behind the NHS

Dan instigated a small steering committee which including representatives from Newham Trades Council, Tower Hamlets Health Campaign and the health workers’ unions NALGO and NUPE, Jim Grayson of NALGO remaining a stalwart supporter of our work in the following decades. We worked with this group to determine a visual form most suited to its potential audience, and arrived at the idea of the ‘visual pamphlet’ – essentially a poster containing information that could be used in health venues. The steering group provided us with an important learning experience regarding the power of collaboration. The role of each member was to share their specialist knowledge – the health representatives did not attempt to make aesthetic judgements, and we, as artists, did not assume expertise in the issues. The visuals that emanated from these discussions were evaluated not so much on the basis of their appearance, but rather on their effectiveness to convey meaning. This approach to collaboration proved highly successful; both in the way it resulted in a ‘multiplication’ of skills and experience, and through the creative energy it generated. It completely contradicted the ‘design by committee’ criticism often directed at collectively produced artwork of the time. This approach was to provide the structural foundations for our subsequent art practice.

Passing the Buck

Eight different posters were produced over the two years of the East London Health Project. These were widely distributed within the health sector, and also intervened in the art world through inclusion in such exhibitions as Issue: Social Strategies by Women Artists in 1980, curated by Lucy Lippard for the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London.