Since tweeting about the Sick Kids Mortuary Chapel Murals opening for Edinburgh Doors Open Day in September this year, I’ve had a flurry of questions and so thought it worth summarising the key info here in bloggy form.
What I want to be very clear on, is that these murals don’t have a secure future at the moment, and finding a secure future is not going to be easy. There are significant risks in all possible scenarios.
Why am I making such a fuss?
These murals are of national significance, recognised by their Category A listing status. They are important because they are the first murals scheme by Phoebe Anna Traquair, who was herself the first professional woman artist in Scotland and the first female member of the Royal Scottish Academy. They were painted for the first dedicated children’s hospital in Scotland. They are the only surviving example of around 20 public art commissions by Patrick Geddes‘ Edinburgh Social Union.
They are massively important in terms of their artist, cultural, social, historical and theological legacy. They are beautiful works of art that have comforted families in times of the worst possible loss. They simply cannot be left to slowly decay.
What are the plans for the future of the murals?
The Sick Kids Hospital site has been sold to the Downing Group, who are a property development, construction and management company. They will develop the site into a mix of privately owned accommodation and student flats. Within this plan, the Mortuary Chapel building will be converted into two 1 bedroom flats. The chapel space itself, with the murals will not be part of a residential space, nor will it be part of access to any residential space.
The full planning application is available online.
What are the risks of these plans?
Whilst there is a stated aim in the planning application that the “The Mortuary Chapel murals are to be conserved and retained on site and will be made accessible to the public upon completion”, there is no detail as to how this will be achieved. The Downing Group have no experience in this kind of building management from what we can see.
There are several risks to the murals within this proposal:
- There is an immediate risk during any building work that the murals become detached due to vibrations on the site.
- Longer term, there are risks from being in the same space as residential property. Whilst there is no water in the space above the murals, DIY activities, risk of fire, significant temperature changes etc remain a concern. If they are not inspected regularly, there is also the risk that any deterioration will go unnoticed and unchecked.
Can the murals be moved?
In theory, yes, but moving them will inevitably mean loss. As my fellow Trustee Julia Mee says:
The detachment process of any mural cycle is risky to say the least, as Phoebe Anna Traquair was well aware when she moved them to their present location. There are three detachment processes generally used in the detachment of wall paintings which I’m sure you’ve already discussed. Firstly, lo stacco a massello which involves the detachment and removal of the painting, render and some or all of the mural support, secondly, lo stacco, involving the detachment of the painting with render alone, and lastly lo strappo, which is the detachment of only the paint layer (the technique employed greatly by Italian restorers to save many frescoes after the devastating flood in Florence in 1966). All three techniques should only be used if there is absolutely no alternative for saving wall paintings as there is no guarantee of how successful the detachment will be.
It is also important to acknowledge that the murals are important to the local community, who have expressed concern over their long term future and a desire to retain them on-site.
Where could the murals go if they were moved?
The ideal home for the murals (accepting that loss is inevitable if they are moved) would be a museum or an art gallery. From a personal perspective, keeping them within Edinburgh in the National Museum of Scotland would be best. They have the most significant collection of other works by Phoebe Traquair and would be well placed to house, care for and interpret the murals. It is not unusual for interiors to be displayed in museums. The NMS already has a fetching wood panelled Scottish interior on display, and of course there is the Peacock Room in the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
This all supposes that any removal is successful, and that is by no means guaranteed.
(By Dianeholdsworth [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons)