Acts of Mercy: Middlesex Hospital paintings of Frederick Cayley Robinson

Cayley Robinson’s wounded soldiers. Image: Wellcome Foundation

Cayley Robinson’s wounded soldiers. Image: Wellcome Foundation

Frederick Cayley Robinson’s four linked-theme paintings Acts of Mercy graced the walls of the Middlesex Hospital in central London for nearly a century. Specially commissioned, they were an integral part of the hospital ethos and as such gave comfort and inspiration to patients, visitors, staff and students alike.

For Cayley Robinson, the location was the purpose without regard to any longer term destiny. Yet demolition of the hospital has ‘liberated’ these large and impressive oil paintings for a wider audience. So does Acts of Mercy have a role in the broader context of 21st Century Britain? Emphatically, yes.

Cayley Robinson started work on these paintings in the middle of the First World War. At a time of such brutality, the paintings celebrated the quiet dignity of the human spirit. His ability to achieve this without being overwhelmed by the sheer horror of war was surely grounded in the fullness of his pre-war life. For here was a man who by the outbreak of war had lived and worked in Paris and Florence and was also involved in the Newlyn and Glasgow art schools. He had even lived on a yacht for two years, sailing around the English coast to select sea views for his work.

It is perfect timing for the National Gallery to share Acts of Mercy with a public exposed if not to trench warfare then to a different kind of brutality as evidenced by acts of selfishness and destruction. Consider the 21st Century so far: natural disasters, terrorism, war, greed and recession, all literally brought home by the relentlessness of modern media. The modern-day relevance of Cayley Robinson’s understated gem is demonstrated by its humanity, sense of community, unison, compassion and spirituality. The themes are inspirational rather than challenging, but still question – in a refreshingly subtle way – how we live our lives. We are made to reflect on how we act and it is inspiring to be reminded of just how powerful the human spirit is.
There is a connective thread throughout the quartet: orphans are being cared for and soldiers returned from battle are being nursed back to health. A doctor who has healed a young girl is thanked by a kneeling mother in a scene full of the imagery of Christ and of Madonna and Child. The beauty of goodness is revealed and we are led to consider what is achievable in hard and testing times. The key message in Acts of Mercy is that choosing to care for one another brings strength to all in the face of adversity.

Acts of Mercy is a National Gallery exhibition in collaboration with Tate Britain. It’s in the Sunley Room and open to the public until 17th October 2010. Admission is free.

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