Mortuary Chapel

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Earlier this week I dashed across town in my lunch break to see some murals being photographed.

Here’s a piece that I wrote in September last year for a poster about the Mortuary Chapel murals. The photos below are my own, and a bit rubbish. Shortly we hope to have a lovely new set of CC licensed photos.

…a piece of illumination enlarged

Phoebe Anna Traquair painted three significant mural schemes within Edinburgh. The first of these, a decoration for the mortuary chapel of the Royal Hospital for Sick Children, remains the least well known and least accessible.

In April of 1885 Traquair was approached by the Edinburgh Social Union and asked if she would decorate a converted coalhouse on the original hospital site at Lauriston Lane, now to be used as a mortuary chapel. The building was small, only 3 metres by 4 metres, but the hospital ladies committee hoped that it could become “a suitable place where the bodies can be left reverently and lovingly for the parents before the burials”. As a mother of three children herself, Traquair was happy to accept the commission.

The decorations were completed in 1886 and strongly reflect themes of motherhood. In a time when as many as 8% of children did not live to see their first birthday, Traquair aimed to offer comfort and support to grieving parents through her decoration scheme. In style she draws on interpretations of mediaeval illuminated manuscripts and Byzantine art, and a review in the Scottish Art Review in 1889 refers to the murals as “A piece of illumination enlarged”.

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In 1891 the Sick Children’s hospital moved to a new site at Rillbank in Sciennes and the little chapel was abandoned. Then, thanks to a petition led by Traquair herself, in 1894 some of the murals were successfully transported to a new purpose-built mortuary chapel. Although the old hospital site had been acquired by the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh the murals were at serious risk of slow destruction as the chapel was no longer being used, and it was felt that the risks of moving them were no worse that leaving them in place. There were significant technical and logistical difficulties; indeed some of the panels were moved and installed still attached to the bricks of the old building.

As the new mortuary was larger than the original, panels from the first scheme were repaired, surrounded with fresh plaster, and the spaces filled with an enlarged decoration scheme. Although the two schemes are united by their use of colour, the second scheme deliberately uses a simpler and more childlike manner.

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The mortuary chapel remains in use within the Sick Children’s Hospital to this day, and the building now has a Category A heritage listing reflecting its importance. Curtains were first installed in the 1970s so that the murals can be covered when required, as the religious themes reflected in the images are not always appropriate.

“…in some ways I shall never do better or maybe as well”

In a published 1899 interview Phoebe Traquair considered this to be her “finest piece of work”, and the murals are the sole survivor of around 20 commissions instigated by the Edinburgh Social Union. However, this mural scheme painted across two sites in two separate decades again faces an uncertain future. With the relocation of the Royal Hospital for Sick Children to a new building at Little France in 2018, the existing site at Sciennes was put up for sale as a commercial development opportunity in late 2016.

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