Acts of Mercy: Cayley Robinson and Stanley Spencer

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Wellcome Library paintings

The Cayley Robinson paintings in the entrance to the Wellcome Library.

Facing the entrance to the Wellcome Library are two large paintings by Frederick Cayley Robinson (1862-1927), from his series Acts of Mercy. This pair, painted in 1916 and 1920, both under the influence of World War I, were formerly facing each other in a purpose-built space at the entrance to The Middlesex Hospital in Fitzrovia, London. Two other paintings from the same set are on loan from the Wellcome Library to what is some sense a successor to the Middlesex Hospital, the UCH Macmillan Cancer Centre, nearby in Huntley Street, London.

An article by Erika Langmuir in the September 2014 issue of The Burlington Magazine suggests that this ensemble by Cayley Robinson may have acted as a model of some kind for the paintings by Stanley Spencer in the Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere, in Hampshire, now the property of The National Trust. Spencer worked on the paintings at Burghclere between 1926 and 1932: Cayley Robinson’s series was therefore quite fresh at the time.

The article weaves together three themes. The first is that Spencer described his war work in spiritual terms. He had been a medical orderly at Beaufort War Hospital in Bristol (1915-1916), and regarded “coming going, fetching, carrying, sorting, opening doors, shutting them, carrying tea-urns, scrubbing floors etc.” all as forms of “glorifying God in all his different performances”.

The second is his Methodist upbringing, in which charitable service as defined by John Wesley and the Bible played an important role. Spencer’s mother was an active Methodist involved in good works, in which her sons participated.

The third is Spencer’s education at the Slade School of Fine Art, from 1908 to 1912. Under the rigorous tuition of the severe Henry Tonks, a training at the Slade introduced student artists to the subjects painted by mediaeval and renaissance artists.

Acts of mercy Oratorio

Oratorio dei Buonomini di San Martino in Florence. Image credit: Salvatore Italia.

Langmuir cites as an example of such a painting of the Acts of Mercy the frescoes in the Oratorio dei Buonomini di San Martino in Florence, painted ca. 1479. The structure of the Sandham chapel itself was inspired by the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, its walls filled with frescoes by Giotto.

Although he does not mention in his correspondence any debt to contemporary artists, Spencer is likely to have seen Cayley Robinson’s paintings in the Middlesex Hospital as they were “celebrated in their day though nearly forgotten until recently”. In both works, the traditional theme of the Acts of Mercy acts as an ‘archetype’, a structure which provides the artists with subjects but allows them to treat them in their own way. The episodes chosen by Spencer include: providing mugs of tea and bread and jam to the wounded servicemen dressed in their ill-fitting ‘convalescent blues’ as shown in ‘Tea in the Hospital Ward’; the making up of the soldiers’ beds while they sit on the chairs in between, wrapped in their blankets; and, in ‘Ablutions’, a soldier shampooing his hair under a cold tap while another has his body wounds treated with iodine. These are earthier versions of themes treated by the more refined Cayley Robinson.

There is certainly a connection between the two: whether the independent use of the same archetype by two different artists brought up in similar traditions; or the younger artist following the steps of the older one; or a middle way: Spencer choosing his own subjects, but strengthened by the knowledge that the Acts of Mercy had already been reset successfully in modern life by Cayley Robinson — and on a massive scale. Cayley Robinson would surely have agreed with Spencer’s stated purpose in painting the Burghclere scenes: “to help to ennoble and reveal the sublimity of medical services”.

This issue of the Burlington is a special issue on The First World War: it contains  articles on Sir John Lavery’s war paintings, the attitudes of the Burlington Magazine staff to the war as it happened, and the centenary exhibitions in Vienna. The editorial discusses the new exhibitions at the Imperial War Museum and the World War I paintings in the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.


Langmuir E. Stanley Spencer and the Acts of Mercy – a suggested additional source for the Sandham Memorial Chapel. The Burlington Magazine, September 2014; 156: 590-594.

Author: William Schupbach

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