Intended for healthcare professionals

Past And Present

Frederick Cayley Robinson's Acts of Mercy murals at the Middlesex Hospital, London

BMJ 1994; 309 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.309.6970.1723 (Published 24 December 1994) Cite this as: BMJ 1994;309:1723
  1. J H Baron, senior lecturera
  1. aDepartment of Surgery, Royal Postgraduate Medical School, Hammersmith Hospital, London W12 ONN

    In the front hall of the Middlesex Hospital, London, are four Acts of Mercy murals by Frederick Cayley Robinson (1862-1927). Each is 300 cm × 480 cm, oil on canvas. Two pictures flanking the central doors to the boardroom on the north wall facing the entrance depict orphans; those on the other two walls depict doctors.

    These paintings were commissioned by Sir Edmund Davis in 1910 for the old hospital. When it was rebuilt in the 1930s, recesses in the entrance were specially designed for the paintings.

    Davis came to Britain in 1900 from South Africa, where he had banking and mining interests. He patronised modern art and gave collections to the Luxembourg museum in Paris in 1915 and to Cape Town in 1935. A member, and later vice president, of the board of governors of the Middlesex, he was knighted in 1927; he died in 1939.

    Cayley Robinson1 was much influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites, the Nabis, the Symbolists, and especially by Puvis de Chavannes, but he remained an individualist. Contemporary critics enthused about his work, calling it visionary fantasy; noble; and interweaving the synthetic with the intimate. He was then forgotten until 50 years after his death, when an article in the Connoisseur2 and a restrospective exhibition emphasised his quasi-archaic style, the symbolic allusions without clearcut messages, and his people -denizens of a silent, timeless world.

    The murals are not easy viewing and have never been fully documented, photographed, or illustrated. They are neither popular nor readily appreciated, not least because they are obscured by dusty glass and furnishings. In 1984 a critic described them as showing bloodless piety rather than purity and complained that the maidens are impossibly angelic and incorruptible virgins, a children's fairytale world.3

    I used to stare hard at Cayley Robinson's murals daily in my 15 years at the Middlesex Hospital and medical school. My life was made happier by the presence of these paintings, and they were one stimulus to my devoting much of my non-biomedical energies to beautifying hospitals.

    I thank Steve Paratian, photographic department, Faculty of Clinical Science, University College, for the illustrations.

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