Mortuary Chapel Questions

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 GeddesEdinburgh 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 (], from Wikimedia Commons)

8 thoughts on “Mortuary Chapel Questions

  1. I am just competing the text of my book ‘Arts & Crafts Churches’, to be published by Lund Humphries in 2020. I am including a section on PAT, of course – even though she was not an architect, and none of her schemes is strictly architecture.
    I try to include access information for all the buildings I include. Have you any information on likely future access to the Mortuary Chapel? I am wondering whether, like the Pearson chapel at the now demolished Middlesex Hospital in Fitzrovia, it will indeed survive among the new housing? ( Frederick Cayley Robinson’s Acts of Mercy paintings which used to hang in the foyer of the Hospital, were acquired by the Welcome Foundation Library.

    1. Hi Alec – thanks for commenting on this post and for your questions. Very interested to hear more about your book too.

      Regarding the future of the Mortuary Chapel, at the moment that is rather uncertain. It it is a Category A listed building (the highest designation possible in the Scottish scheme) and at the most recent consideration of the plans for the site by the City Council Planning Committee the proposed change of use to residential accommodation was not given listed building consent. This is of course a good thing, but it means that the developers now need to come up with an alternative proposal. That’s being worked on at the moment so of course it’s hard to say what it will be with any certainty.

      It is worth saying that there’s a will to make the murals accessible on the part of the developer, which is to be commended. However, we (the Mansfield Traquair Trust) have some concerns over the feasibility of the developers plans for this, and their experience in managing and operating a heritage building. We’re trying to be as constructive as we can in terms of exploring options for future use of the site, as well as continue to raise awareness and appreciation of the mortuary chapel. I very much suspect the next few months will be critical in terms of alternative proposals coming forth, so I think it’s a space to keep a watching brief on!

      1. Anne-Marie
        Many thanks for that – hopeful, if not quite rock solid. At least they are not going to demolish it – one hopes! I always think PAT ought to be Edinburgh’s answer to CRM – you know, on tea-towels and biscuit tins. But maybe Edinburgh already has enough iconic images – the Castle, Holyrood, the Scott Monument, Inspector Rebus, the Proclaimers (Leith, actually).
        Every good wish for success in making the building accessible eventually – I don’t think Scotland quite realises how important – or how commercial – PAT is. I note the Song School is now visitable on tours. You need to get someone high profile like Kirsty Wark to start enthusing about her…

        1. Yes – thankfully the Category A listing means that it can’t be demolished!

          You might be interested to know that in the Design for Living gallery in the National Museum of Scotland PAT is given suitably significant prominence alongside CRM – she and CRM share equally a whole side of the gallery! It’s quite a contrast between his muted palette and her bright colour schemes.

          1. We had a back-and-forth in 2019 about Phoebe Anna Traquair’s work in the chapel of the Sick Children’s Hospital – I was finalising the text for my 2020 book ‘Arts & Crafts Churches.’ I never managed to get to see the chapel, but I am now (post-lockdown) on a mission to see all the buildings I “missed” (about 25 of them), and I would be grateful if you could point me to the best person to grant me access to the chapel.

            Please could you reply to my email address?


  2. How wonderful to discover your information. I visited Edinburgh in March 2019 and to my utter delight discovered PAT, and then spent my last 2 days in Edinburgh walking from site to site, and was especially touched by being allowed to spend some quiet time in the chapel/mortuary. The very patient resident stonemason at St Mary’s spent some time showing me the panels in fhe Song School. I am hopeful that these most precious murals will be cherished and preserved. Tina Buys, Pretoria, South Africa.

  3. Dear Anne-Marie – this overview has been really helpful for my dissertation (I’m an art student in Galway doing currently my BA Honours). I had the good luck to see the chapel in March 2019 and was amazed how beautiful they are, but I am also very concerned about the state they are in. My question would be if there are any changes of the situation since last year or is it unchanged? Thank you so much.

    1. Hi Steffi – at the moment they remain in limbo I’m afraid. Planning permission for the site was approved, but listed building consent for a change of use for the chapel was not. It’s now up to the developers to come up with an alternative plan. In the meantime the move out date for the Sick Kids Hospital has been pushed back yet again, and with the global effects of the pandemic we’re seeing now, I’m not sure how quickly the site will be developed. One piece of good news is that Historic Churches Scotland were able to fundraise enough money to tender for a proper feasibility study and that’s being carried out right now. So my hope is that it puts some more concrete and appropriate options on the table with a developer again in the future. Hope that helps!

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