Hospital History: Phoebe Traquair murals 1885-1898

The early work of acclaimed artist Phoebe Anna Traquair (1852-1936) is built into a small but significant space in Edinburgh's 'Sick Kids' Hospital. As art historian Elizabeth Cumming's book about her reveals, she was Scotland's first significant professional woman artist of the modern age, and a contributor to the British arts and crafts movement. She worked in various forms including enamel work, furniture decoration, embroidery, and was often inspired by literature and by music. She was one of the first artists to create mural art.

As her first commission in 1885, by the Edinburgh Social Union, she painted the walls of the new RHSC chapel when the Hospital was situated at Meadowside House in Lauriston Lane. It was prompted by the hospital's Ladies’ Committee who wished it not to be 'extravagant or highly decorated but a suitable place where the bodies can be left reverently and lovingly for the parents before the burials'. A coal house was converted for this purpose and painted by Traquair during 1885 and 1886. She painted boldly in gold and primary colours, including white-robed angels, images of motherhood and the journey of the spirit; images often reminiscent of Pre-Raphaelite work. Only the reimbursement of paint expenses was paid -- she was not yet considered a professional.

Two moves of the hospital later, when it became established at Sciennes, it was felt that the murals should remain with the hospital for which they were originally designed. This was not easy, particularly as on two of the walls the plaster had been applied without any laths and the only way to remove the paintings was to saw through the brick walls so that five of the panels were removed with a solid brick wall still attached to them. Some of the work had to be sacrificed.

The murals were repositioned in a purpose-built mortuary and Traquair returned, restoring and repainting the cracked panels and adding new work in order to fill considerable gaps created by the damage and by the different dimensions of the room. On the south wall she added portraits of some of the great men of the time including Carlysle, Ruskin, Tennyson, Browning, Blake, Burne-Jones, Watts, Rossetti and WB Scott, Sir Noel Payton, Dr John Brown and others. Above the door, a small panel contains portraits of some of the officials of the hospital at the time the first decoration was completed in 1885.

This is a significant art history treasure gleaming at the heart of the hospital. For those wishing to learn more, as well as Elizabeth Cummings’ book, the website of the Mansfield Traquair Trust is very informative.

Amongst the Lothian Health Service archives for RHSC we came across a few references to the move of the murals from Meadowside House, then under demolition, to the new Sciennes Hospital.

18th October 1895
The Directors were issuing invitations for the opening ceremony at Sciennes to 400 (they estimated that 300 to 330 could be accommodated on one ward). The same minute also notes that the mortuary pictures by Phoebe Traquair had been sent over from the other side of The Meadows but could not be built for some time.

1st July 1896
A letter from Mrs Traquair on the subject of the proposed decoration of the Mortuary having been read to the Meeting the Committee, it was resolved that they should not interfere with the scheme of decoration proposed by Mrs Traquair, but should leave this to herself.

5th April 1897
The Architect submitted a statement of the work which Mrs Traquair wished done on the Mortuary before she commenced operations. The total cost including painting and laying of tiles etc and providing ventilation was estimated at £60. The committee after full consideration were of opinion that they could not, in view of Mrs Traquair’s generous offer, decline to sanction this expenditure and they accordingly instructed the Architect to have the work carried out to Mrs Traquair’s satisfaction.

8th June 1898
It was reported that the painting of the Mortuary by Mrs Traquair was now complete and the meeting cordially minuted their high appreciation of the great service Mrs Traquair had rendered to the hospital in painting the frescos on the walls of the Mortuary. They desired that their most hearty thanks should be conveyed to Mrs Traquair for her generosity in devoting so much labour and time to the decoration of the Mortuary.

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