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Published: 21 June 2007
One of the four paintings the loss of which Sir Nicholas Serota says would be a disaster for British art heritage
One of the four paintings the loss of which Sir Nicholas Serota says would be a disaster for British art heritage
Masterpieces that may be hidden from view

CNJ reporter on the battle to save four ‘unique’ oil paintings for the nation

CULT movie director David Cronenberg wanted to rent them, their creator designed the Titanic’s crockery, art critic Brian Sewell wants to stop the Tate from getting them and a secret American investor wants to spirit them away.
Now, a series of emails and documents released to the New Journal under the Freedom of Information Act reveal how a hospital’s plans to sell four paintings have captured the attention of one of the most important men in the art world.
Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate, has stepped in after learning UCLH has put the Acts of Mercy paintings by newly fashionable turn-of-the-century British symbolist Frederick Cayley Robinson into the hands of auctioneers Christie’s, who are keeping hush about the potential value.
Last month Sir Nicholas wrote to hospital chairman Peter Dixon pleading for the “highly important” works to remain “together and on public view”, warning: “The likelihood is they will be broken up, with one or more possibly going abroad, never to be seen together again. This would be a disaster for British art heritage. They mark the highest achievement of public decoration in England in the early modern period... They are unique and are masterpieces of public art in Britain.”
The paintings were donated to the hospital by philanthropist Sir Edmund Davis who commissioned them in 1912, after he paid for the Middlesex Hospital’s entrance hall to be rebuilt.
It is understood Tate is hoping to raise the cash through a series of arts grants but that this may take some time.
Sir Nicholas wrote: “It would seem wrong that Sir Edmund Davis’ wish for them to serve as an inspiration to patients and medical staff should be ignored by a subsequent generation. It is unlikely any public museum – Tate included – would have the funds to purchase these works… certainly within the deadline now imposed by the threat of a sale this summer.”
Chief nurse Louise Boden wrote in an email to arts curator Guy Noble a week later how the comments upset Mr Dixon: “Chairman wants to know exactly when UCLH first had any discussion / correspondence with Tate re the Cayley Robinsons. Nic Serota has written to say we should display for the nation! Chairman not impressed.”
And when deciding what to do with the proceeds, she warned Mr Noble to ensure the proceeds will be earmarked to go back into an arts fund, “otherwise it will all go into the bottomless hole of the ongoing deficit”.
UCLH announced the sale following the £175 million disposal of the Middlesex building last June, on grounds of lack of space in the new Euston Road building.
However, the documents reveal curator Mr Noble had a different reason when, in November 2005, he suggested the paintings should be sold because: “Times have changed and the works are not really suited to the new UCH.”
This was agreed by the board but after mounting pressure from art institutions the Imperial War Museum and Tate Britain, staff and local residents, the hospital last month delayed the sale for six months.
The emails show Bloomsbury councillor Penny Abraham pleading: “It seems extraordinary to say you have nowhere to hang the paintings when you have a large number of buildings all over the place! As you got such an enormous sum from the sale of the Middlesex Hospital, it might be appropriate to forego this particular sale for the sake of local people’s sensitivities…”
In 2002 Sir Nicholas told the chief executive Tate was interested in the paintings, promising they “…would be conserved and incorporated into the programme of displays at Tate Britain. We would also hope to plan a special display to mark their acquisition.”
This contradicts art critic Brian Sewell’s recent comments in the New Journal, who said they should be sold to a private investor, warning “the chances of Cayley Robinsons ever being seen are remote” if in Tate’s hands.
Others with concerns include David Barrie, director of The Art Fund, and the acting secretary of the Royal Academy of Arts Mary Anne Stevens, and Bloomsbury councillor Rebecca Hossack, who runs an art gallery.
Mr Barrie told Peter Dixon in May the paintings were donated “on the assumption they would be displayed for public benefit… We are concerned they remain together and accessible to the public.”
In 2005 Ms Stevens asked if the paintings could be housed in the new Euston Road building.
The emails also reveal how, after the paintings were removed from the Middlesex and put into storage, director David Cronenberg’s crew asked for them to be reinstated while he was filming on site.
Mr Noble wrote: “I told them this was out of the question.” Instead he offered photos from which they could replicate the works.
The documents also tell how Cayley Robinson designed the Titanic’s crockery but that supporting records had disappeared.
Throughout the correspondence there is a desire from Mr Noble and board members to try to keep the works together and in a public institution, but a reluctance to give the Tate the year they require “…to sort themselves out”.
However, the emails show how a tempting offer nearly saw the paintings taken overseas.
Mr Noble writes: “Christie’s have a meeting… with two dealers who wish to purchase the works… We do need to prepare ourselves (press and community) that it is possible the paintings may well end up in America.”
But a week later, Peter Dixon writes: “I’m nervous about rushing to accept the first offer. Why not give the Tate a fixed period and if they don’t come up with something in say six months, go to auction with a reserve. Dealers don’t often do anything that is likely to lose them money.”
Emails from one anonymous also academic shed a little light on Cayley Robinson’s commission.
A competition was held to decide who should do the works but, in a strange twist of fate, although Australian Donald McLaren won, Cayley Robinson ended up doing the paintings. Archivists could not explain why this was the case.
No matter where the paintings end up, the emails show the hospital is in no position to change its mind.
As Ms Boden said in August last year: “All the arts projects currently underway or planned are predicated on a loan by the Trustees against the sale (particularly) of the murals.”

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