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J R Soc Med. 2004 January; 97(1): 33.
PMCID: PMC1079268

Art and medicine 1: Health Hazards by Dr Jane Jackson

Paintings with a moral or educational theme were popular in the Victorian era—for example, works by George Frederick Watts and the pre-Raphaelites (notably William Holman Hunt). Art as the road to salvation went out of style in the 20th century, but the power of art to illustrate social wrongs or to promote healthy behaviours may be due for a revival. In the 2003 exhibition by the Medical Art Society, entries for the Brooke Epidemiology Art Prize, awarded by the Section of Epidemiology and Public Health, included Health Hazards by Dr Jane Jackson. Her prize-winning interpretation of the theme ‘inequalities’ was based on the Government review Tackling Health Inequalities (2002). We see a deceptively calm interior, brightly coloured in the original, which ‘becomes tragical if rightly read’, as the Victorian art critic John Ruskin observed of one of Hunt’s moral works. The room is a bizarre combination of cooker, cupboards, easy chair and deep-piled rug, with children and a mirror in the background portraying accidents about to happen, including a fire. Residential fire deaths for children are fifteen times more common in children from social class V than in those from social class I: children in social class V have also a five times greater risk of accidental death than their peers in social class I. All the figures in the picture are obese—a problem increasing more rapidly in lower socio-economic groups. The adults are heedless of the chubby children with their dangerous playthings, while the possibly drunk parent slumps indolently to one side. Granny teeters unsteadily towards us, a reminder that falls cause the largest numbers of fatal injuries in older people (62%), as well as disability. While all may turn out well in this surreal family scene, the statistics predict otherwise. An image of our times, Jane Jackson’s painting echoes past attempts to show links between health, behaviour and the environment.environment.

Articles from Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine are provided here courtesy of Royal Society of Medicine Press