Thursday, 29 July 2010

Art in hospitals

Years ago I was an outpatient at St Thomas' Hospital in London. Fortunately I wasn't particularly ill or anything so this meant that while I was traipsing along corridors and up and down stairs to make various visits to different departments I could revel in the display of artwork on the walls. They seemed to have quite a collection and this was news to me - I didn't know that hospitals might be repositories for the creative arts.

Some years later I was visiting an elderly friend who was a patient at the Middlesex hospital. She wasn't in great health but she was very keen for me to see the hospital chapel and offered to take me on a visit. So I followed her as she hobbled out of the ward in her dressing gown and headed towards the lift. Eventually we reached the door of the chapel and went in and it was like entering Aladdin's cave. My strongest memory of it was lots of glittering mosaics everywhere - it looked very Art Deco and it certainly lifted my spirits.

The old Middlesex hospital has now been demolished and a new glass and concrete hospital has been built nearby. While doing a bit of internet research for this blog I came across a site with photos of the interior of the Art Deco chapel and the author said that it was going to be demolished along with the rest of the hospital which made me a little sad.

What I hadn't noticed on that visit were four very large oil paintings that took pride of place in the reception area. Fortunately paintings, even very large ones, are portable and they are currently on display at the National Gallery. Yesterday I went to see them.

They were painted by Frederick Cayley Robinson. He was a mature artist by the time he received this commission which pleased me no end. The whole project took from 1915 until 1920 to complete and the group as a whole is called 'Acts of Mercy'. You can read the reasons for the commission by following the link to the National Gallery above which is interesting in itself.

The two paintings which I found most moving are: Orphans I and Orphans II. They show a group of girls, identically dressed queuing up for food in a refectory (I bought a postcard of each of these paintings which don't really do them justice but are good reminders of what was in them). The girls look sombre and tired and every face is different and individual. I imagine that the artist would have had access to an orphanage and could spend time making detailed sketches of the different girls. I found this attention to detail refreshing because very often you see the same face repeated over and again when an artist wants to create a crowd scene.

The paintings are very atmospheric and full of tension - they're not the kind of thing you'd want hanging in your living room. You'll read on the National Gallery website that they are reminiscent of Leonardo's The Last Supper and they also recall Dutch 17th century paintings which seems to be an accurate observation. In the exhibition they have hung some Italian masters (sorry, I didn't jot the names down) alongside these paintings to show the Italian influence on Frederick Cayley Robinson.

It's just dawned on me that I found these paintings have a similar intense quality to them as do Wilhelm Hammershøi's who I wrote about back in 2008. You can read that post if you click on the label: intriguing interiors below.