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More about Royal Free Hospital

The majority of the artworks at the Royal Free Hospital and its associated sites belong to the Royal Free Charity, smaller numbers belong to the Royal Free site of University College London’s medical school and to a few long-term lenders. The Charity funds the maintenance of the Collection, and occasionally commissions new works. Nearly every kind of artwork is featured – glass installations, textiles, enamels, mosaics, murals, ceramics, calligraphy, sculptures and a wide range of pictures.

The Royal Free Hospital was founded by William Marsden in 1828, initially occupying a house in Holborn, moving in 1842 half a mile north into a former barracks in Gray’s Inn Road. The present purpose-built hospital in Hampstead opened in 1974. In 1877 the Royal Free became the first hospital in England to admit women medical students to the new London Medical School for Women (later called the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine), whose founder was Sophia Jex Blake. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman to qualify as a doctor in Britain, was the Dean from 1883 to 1902.

The story of the Royal Free institutions is told in Utermohlen’s popular four-panel painting, showing, amongst many others, Queen Victoria, who at the very start of her reign bestowed the royal title on the hospital to honour the free care it alone had given Londoners in the cholera outbreaks of the early 1830s.

The strengths of the collection reflect the Royal Free’s history and locations. Of continuing research interest are the portraits of leading clinicians and academics of their times, from Marsden himself to more recent professors and deans. The group portraits of the consultants, the newer one showing only some of the now hugely expanded number, are particularly intriguing for both staff and visitors. Those often munificent figures responsible for founding and running the antecedent and present hospitals represent a third group of imposing portraits.

For the recent turn of the century, six paintings were commissioned from Simon Black to celebrate the work of the staff of the hospital. The artist spent many days observing the activities going on around him, and the figures are nearly all portraits of individuals, some of whom still work in the hospital. These canvases are amongst the most widely enjoyed in the collection.

Whilst only three are oil paintings, the Royal Free has, after the National Museum of Australia, the largest holding in the world of pictures in a variety of media by Noelle Sandwith. A direct descendent of Marsden, she trained first as an artist, and then as a nurse at the Royal Free. Her illustrations of the Australian outback and of life in Tonga in the 1950s are most charming.

Though by now less recognisable as a group, plenty of works in various media were commissioned for or given to the spacious new Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead in the early 1970s. Amongst these is a mosaic landscape by Hans Unger, the design for which is shown here. This was a few years before Unger designed tiles for some of the new Victoria Line underground stations, as well as London Transport posters. Other works from that period include the view of the then new building by Anthony Amies as seen from Hampstead Heath, as well as the paintings by Marjorie Hawkes. Two are by Lady Robinson, the wife of Sir Kenneth Robinson, MP, who later became Chairman of the Arts Council and was involved in the hospital’s art.

More doctors paint than might naturally be expected, and several are represented here. Examples include Donald Grieve, Professor of Anatomy in the 1980s, and Derek Bangham, a prominent endocrinologist. Here too are to be found paintings by an operating department assistant, an occupational therapist, a secretary and several patients.

The two works by Tomás Harris were given by the artist’s widow to Dame Sheila Sherlock, the renowned Professor of Medicine and liver expert. Born in Hampstead into a picture dealing family, during the Second World War Harris was an important MI5 agent who constructed a sophisticated and successful deception of German intelligence.

The Royal Free is fortunate to be based in Hampstead, where at one time the density of artists per square mile must have been amongst the highest anywhere. The hospital shows many works, especially original prints, of such local artists. It benefits both from gifts from generous citizens, and from a critically appreciative local population. We know that diverting, beautiful or fantastical pictures often give worried patients and relatives a few moments of restful distraction, and that is their main purpose.

Kim Fleming, Chairman, Works of Art Committee

Text source: PCF / Royal Free Hospital

This description was originally written for a catalogue.

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