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Art term

Social realism

Created by

Art UK


Healthcare, Groups

The Ward Round (2002)
by Simon Black (1958–2008)

Medium: oil on linen
Dimensions: H 122 x W 153 cm

Commissioned by the Trustees of the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust, this painting represents a scene we are all familiar with. The family at the centre of the composition tells us that we're in the paediatric department and there is an obvious meaning in the relationships between groups of figures in this scene.

Can you see any similarities between the composition of this painting and Gossaert's The Adoration of the Kings which is the first lesson in the History category? The analogy with a Renaissance work hundreds of years earlier isn't as peculiar as it first seems: the late artist Simon Black said, 'The Royal Free Hospital commissions fuse echoes of Poussin, Uccello and Spencer with the frozen moment redolent of the digital twenty-first-century eye.' Certainly, both scenes are balanced around a central family group and there is geometry at play.

While hospital departments like this are instantly recognisable to many of us as serious places, the artist's treatment of the scene is quite cartoonish, isn't it? Is it moving or static? Is the colour palette broad or limited? Although the cubicles suggest separation (a similar device is used in the Gossaert), everyone appears interconnected in terms of being a whole team. How can we relate this to the work of the NHS?

The Ward Round

The Ward Round

Royal Free Hospital


Stage 1: look, describe and discuss

Show your students this painting and ask them: Are they interested or not interested? Why?

Ask them to describe the groups of figures and what’s going on in the background and around them.

Don't tell them too much about what the picture represents at this stage. Once you have interpreted an image, or been told what to see, it is difficult to look freshly and critically at it or appreciate each other's views.  

Tip: use the zoom feature on the image below to look closer at details. You can open a full-screen version by clicking here.



Stage 2: nudge questions

Now when looking at the painting, ask more specific ('nudge') questions:

  • Where and when might this scene be taking place? What clues tell us?
  • There are a variety of different objects on the walls and in people’s hands. What are they? Why are they there?
  • How would you describe the mood of the scene? Would you describe this scene as ordered or chaotic?
  • How has the painter used colour to get us to focus on different things?
  • Is this painting realistic in style? Must a painting look realistic like a photograph to be easily understood and have an impact on us?

Suggested activity: drawing from memory

Remove the painting from display. Whilst it's not visible, ask your students to redraw the basic elements of the painting from memory. Give them a set time in which to complete their drawing and make it quick!

Now display the picture again and ask your students to compare their drawing with the original. What have they remembered and what have they forgotten? Compare answers. Why do they think they have remembered certain features and not others?

Stage 3: Superpower Kit questions

Now we can start to explore the 'elements' of the painting. Use the Superpower Kit to ask questions about the work and spark a discussion.  

We'd suggest focusing on the following areas to help your students 'read' the image (click to open the relevant Superpower Kit section):

Figures – Gesture

Composition (e.g. shapes)



Ask your students to evidence their points, e.g. where exactly are they looking when they make a statement? Can everybody see what they see?

Final stage: review

Ask your students: how interested are they in the image now? Why?

At this point, you may also want to give your students some time to record and review their observations in a sketchbook on their own or in pairs.


Comparison activity

Compare The Ward Round with either of the following two artworks which feature other workplaces:

  • Caroline Walkers's 2019 oil painting, Conditioning. The following areas of the Superpower Kit may support discussion: Space, Colour and Light.
  • Andreas Gursky's 1999 photographic print, Chicago, Board of Trade II. Gursky has double-exposed certain sections of the picture to create a blurred effect. The following areas of the Superpower Kit may support discussion: Composition (e.g. movement), Space and Materials & Techniques.

Cross-curricular activity: Art & Design and PSHE (Careers)

Throughout this lesson, we've looked at examples of different workplaces including the NHS, a barbershop and the world of finance.

Task your students with visualising their future career by drawing or painting a picture of them at their future workplace. What are they wearing or holding? What symbols and attributes can be found in the workplace to make it clear where the workplace is?

To support this, your students may wish to look at more careers by watching some of the careers films on BBC Teach.

If you have previously done the Portraits category, you may want to show The Tailor and Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando once again as further inspiration for this activity.

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