Saturday, 14 August 2010
They were never really in danger, and following the demolition of the Middlesex Hospital in 2008 the four paintings known collectively as Acts of Mercy that had hung in two different entrance halls, starting in 1915-20, were acquired by the Wellcome Library. Now they're being splendidly exhibited in the National Gallery's Sunley Room until October.
Never heard of the artist, Frederick Cayley Robinson? Neither had I, and I thought I'd be in and out of the room in a flash. But I was caught immediately by the geometrical, frieze-like compositions and the magic realism of the streets and windows. Cayley Robinson studied in Tuscany between 1898 and 1900, so he probably knew the tradition of paintings for charitable institutions from Domenico di Bartolo's fresco of orphans received into Siena's Hospital of Santa Maria della Scala. He would certainly have been familiar with the kind of storytelling perspectives offered in this rather marvellous painting by Sandro Botticelli of scenes from the life of Saint Zenobius. It hangs in the National Gallery, though I'd never noticed it there, and is reproduced by courtesy of that institution.
Cayley Robinson's series derives from the seven Corporal Acts of Mercy, six of which are very poetically described in Matthew's Gospel. The first two paintings depict the Middlesex Hospital's tradition of raising orphans. There are mysteries in 'Orphans' I (depicted at the top). Why the girl in the patterned dress illuminated by lamplight? And the birds flying from the campanile outside the high window - could they have something to do with Cayley Robinson's designs for Maeterlinck's The Blue Bird (which I'd love to see)? All four Middlesex Hospital/Wellcome Library paintings reproduced by courtesy and with the copyright of the Trustees of the Wellcome Trust Ltd.
In the painting which always hung to the right, and does so now, the girls - in orphans' uniform, though they could almost be nurses in training - continue to process. The almost mystical gap below the window with the bust suggests a kind of imprisonment - is Cayley Robinson criticising the straitjacketing of these young women?
The sombre fallout of the Great War enters the picture with the last pair, collectively known as 'The Doctor'. In the first, actually painted last in 1920, there are nurses, physically and mentally wounded soldiers, enigmatic onlookers and weirdly lit streets with factory chimneys behind.
The last is almost post-PreRaphaelitey, too much so for me, with the costumed mix of periods, but I like the tree breaking up the ashlar, the birds and the semi-lit houses.
Not only is this a fascinating little exhibition, also featuring's Piero della Francesca's hauntingly cool Baptism of Christ and a few more Cayley Robinsons, one alongside a Puvis de Chavannes; it's also the one place in the height of summer where you can escape the gaping parties in the main galleries - usually so empty at certain times of day. By the way, it looks as if reintroducing entrance fees for museums and galleries is NOT on the cards of the new government. But maybe one good solution for swelling the coffers would be to incorporate a £10 culture charge in tourists' air tickets.
Anyway, it's marvellous as a Londoner to be able to drop in on any treasure for half an hour or so. And this encourages me to visit the Wellcome collections and the Foundling Hospital (which I think does charge for admission, but I'm happy to pay) some time soon.