Artists re-paint vintage toys for children's hospital hearing project

What happened when Artfelt, The Children’s Hospital Charity’s arts programme, called on creatives to donate their model-painting talents.

When staff at The Children’s Hospital in Sheffield found that a set of 1970s toys, used for decades to test hearing in children, had become damaged and unfit for purpose, they thought they could easily replace them with a new set.

The characters are used in hearing tests, where children move them in and out of their rowing boat to register sounds.

However the maker, Escor Toys, had gone out of business in 2012, so Cat Powell, manager of Artfelt - The Children’s Hospital Charity’s arts programme - set about restoring the mini figures to bring them back into use.

Powell sourced artists from across the UK to get involved in the project, which involved painting a selection of the 250 figures - depicting everything from superheroes and animals to women from around the world, as well as characters from popular culture.

The result is a bright and exciting range of toys, with an appeal surpassing that of the original design.

One of the artists, Wirral-born homeware designer Lianne Mellor, painted intricate owls and lacquered cats for use in the project.

“It’s nice to give a new life to the beloved wooden figures,” said Lianne. “I think it’s fantastic that Artfelt credits the arts with the importance it deserves in an environment like a hospital. It’s lovely to be appreciated and to have the opportunity to engage with the hospital and the arts in new and exciting ways.”

Cat Powell said: “All the artists really got stuck in to the project, and came up with some impressive designs, in a range of styles. They used specialist paints to create a collection of engaging toys that will benefit our hearing patients for years to come.”

Ten-year old Eva Menzie (pictured, left), has been treated for trouble with her hearing at The Children’s Hospital since she was born.

Her mum, Nichola Broadhead, said:“It’s lovely knowing that they had the toys since the beginning when Eva was a baby, and they’re still using them ten years later. Looking at the kids, they’re still so interested in them."

"It’s great that they can just add a lick of paint and continue to use something that was never broken and something that the kids love to play with, " she added. "It’s more than just a hearing test, too. It’s about interactive play and increasing their imagination which I think is so important. All the toys are so different, some of them are superheroes, others are animals and so every child can find a toy that they like to play with for the tests.”

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Other artists involved with the project included linocut printer and etcher James Green, design agency Peter and Paul, sketcher and calligrapher Lord Bunn and textile artist Seiko Kinoshita.

Staff from Museums Sheffield and contractors, Simons Group – who are currently building a £40m new wing at The Children’s Hospital – also helped restore some of the figures.

Artfelt is currently in the middle of its biggest appeal to date, and needs funding to build artwork into the fabric of the new building and help make the clinical more comfortable for the children who make 245,000 visits to the hospital each year.

As we've seen before on Digital Arts, this isn't the only example of  artists getting involved in projects for paediatric wards and children's hospitals.

Top character design duo Tado created vinyl decorations for Sheffield Children’s Hospital’s new hydrotherapy pool, while interactive play designer Chris O’Shea produced a Kinect-based installation at the Royal London Hospital’s newly redeveloped play space.

The latter also benefitted from the talents of picture book illustrator, Chris Haughton, who created large-scale murals and framed rugs in one of the Royal London Hospital's paediatric wards.

To donate to Artfelt, visit

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To donate to Artfelt, visit