Nan West and the Orthopaedic Hospital

GATHERING WINTER FUEL (MY TITLE). From ‘December’, to the left of the door

From ‘December’, to the right of the door

IN 1927 at the age of 23 the painter Nan West received an enviable but daunting commission. She was given the task of decorating 90 square metres of wall space in the new waiting hall at the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital’s outpatients department on Bolsover Street, Fitzrovia. The Hospital had grown out of  ‘The Society for the Treatment, at their own homes, of Poor Persons afflicted with Diseases and Distortions of the Spine, Chest, and Hip, etc.’, established in 1836 through the efforts of Dr. Charles Verral and Mrs. Henry Ogle of Eastbourne. In 1908 the outpatients department had acquired a new building on Bolsover Street, and in 1927 this was extended.  The walls of the vast room where patients waited to consult a doctor would have been bleak indeed if West, the daughter of the hospital chairman, had not been called in to enliven them.

The old Orthopaedic Hospital on Bolsover Street, 2010

Nan West was born in London in 1904. By her own account her childhood was miserable, but things improved when she started attending the Slade School of Art in Bloomsbury. There she was a contemporary of Rex Whistler, and in 1927 she was working as Whistler’s assistant on another set of murals which the pair was producing for the restaurant at the Tate Gallery. West began the hospital murals around the same time.

The Waiting Hall

       

Most of the murals represent the months of the year, and were originally displayed above the twelve doors leading to the clinics and offices. Painted in oils on canvas, each of the months has a garland of seasonal flowers enclosing its name. The paintings must surely have made life for its suffering occupants just a little brighter. In the early 20th century art was being created not just for prosperous drawing rooms, but also for the public spaces used by the poor and the not-so-rich.

 

 

 

At the far end of the Waiting Hall the largest mural, about 4 metres by 3, depicts Summer. Four people are picnicking under a striped umbrella, while two lovers lie under a cherry tree, and another couple wanders off into the countryside, where Dover Castle can be seen on a distant hill.

Nan West in 1928, working on the ‘Summer’ mural

After her marriage, West suffered a mental breakdown, which caused her to give up painting. In her unpublished autobiography she writes, ‘Everything ceased to be interesting, and I knew I was losing the skill I had at drawing….’.  In 1956 she committed suicide.

The Waiting Hall is listed (Grade II), and when a new outpatients department was built for the hospital further down the street in 2009, the old hall was incorporated into an office building created on the original site at 50 Bolsover Street.

West believed the hospital project had been too demanding for her ‘little talent’. Happily, we can judge for ourselves whether or not this was simply a case of ‘imposter syndrome’ – that is, West was underestimating her own abilities.

I suspect that you will want to disagree with West. Her paintings are quite lovely. To quote Historic England on its listing page: ‘This is one of the largest mural cycles of the time to survive in London… The austere classicism of the architecture provides an elegant framework for Nan West’s informal painted scheme; the whole being an elegant and well-conceived composition. The murals have great rarity within a type which was never numerous and especially vulnerable to change. They also are an important example of a tradition of female mural artists working in the inter-war years whose work is highly regarded ..’

The listing entry notes that West’s career flourished until 1937, and during this time she painted a Noah’s Ark scene at the Child Welfare Clinic in Chelsea, and murals for Simpson’s Tea Rooms in Piccadilly. Sadly, these no longer survive. She also wrote and illustrated ‘The Landscape Painter’s  Calendar’. which was published by Methuen in 1928.

To  see the National Orthopaedic Hospital Murals, contact Concord London Developments, The Listed Hall, 50 Bolsover Street, London W1W 5NG. Tel. +44 20 7307 1820. 

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