Tuesday, 4 September 2012

St Thomas' Hospital in Evacuation Quarters (1942)

Evelyn Dunbar St Thomas' Hospital in Evacuation Quarters 1942 (3' x 5': 91 x 152cm) Imperial War Museum, London
8th September, 1940:

I did my night rounds, and watched the bombs dropping for a bit, then wandered about having tea here, and ovaltine somewhere else, as nearly everybody else was also doing, and then about 2 am went to bed in my basement and got to sleep. The next thing was I found myself sitting up in bed – chaps were rushing here and there. St Thomas’s has been hit by a bomb.
I donned my dressing gown and slippers and went out into the corridor and was met by a pall of dust. I asked a few questions and found that the wing opposite Westminster Bridge – the nurses’ home – had been hit. I went along and joined a party which was hunting for people who were trapped. Then from 2.30 to 3.30 am we climbed about in the ruins calling out and searching for people. The nurses’ home had been demolished – was just a heap of ruins.
Everybody who was near when the bomb exploded was absolutely covered in black dust – was quite unrecognisable. We found five nurses who were trapped and let them out by shifting some enormous piece of furniture and thus allowing a piece of wall to fall down. They seemed quite cheery.
All the while the bombs were falling round about – but we did not take much notice of them then. The amazing thing was that only five nurses were killed, and a lot of them had cuts and bruises but nothing serious. One was pinned under the ruins for hours before she died.
In the morning what a spectacle! I can’t describe it but it must have been a high explosive bomb to do all that damage. Then last night the whole hospital, doctors, nurses, maids, pundits and pinkies all slept together in the basement! A most incredible sight – one could hardly move without stumbling over a sleeping form. We all slept very well, partly because we were so tired and partly because we were now getting used to bombs….

This is an extract from a letter written on September 10th, 1940, by one of the St Thomas Hospital housemen, Dr Frank Crockett, to his family in Australia.

8th September, 1940: St Thomas Hospital, Lambeth, bombed. Houses of Parliament in the background. Photo credit: unknown.

St Thomas Hospital, on the south bank of the Thames, almost opposite the Houses of Parliament, was hit by bombs a dozen times in World War 2. In 1941 the hospital was evacuated partly to Hydestile and partly to Pyrford, both villages in Surrey. In Pyrford various departments of St Thomas moved into the premises of St Nicholas' Orthopaedic Hospital, a Victorian children's foundation later known as Rowley Bristow. 

St Nicholas' Orthopaedic Hospital (Rowley Bristow), Pyrford, Surrey, to which St Thomas' Hospital evacuated in 1941

In March 1942 Evelyn spent several weeks at Pyrford recording hospital activities, which in due course she transformed into the greatest and most finished of her four nursing paintings. She felt the best way of presenting the many different facets of hospital life was to incorporate them in the multi-compartmental form she had made particularly her own. We've seen it already in the 6-box Putting on Anti-Gas Protective Clothing and, before her appointment as Official War Artist, An English Calendar and to a lesser extent in the Joseph's Dream diptych. In St Thomas' Hospital in Evacuation Quarters Evelyn uses it in a yet more imaginative way. There are no margins or borders or separators, and the overall impression of this large, and beautiful, canvas is one of wide and varied hospital activity, but a controlled, unified, orderly and calm busy-ness, indeed evoking the same devotion and detachment that Dr Crockett's letter shows. Hitler's bombs may have caused some material damage, but they've barely brushed the spirit, determination and professional pride of these nurses.

More than a year after its completion, Evelyn wrote a few notes about the painting of it for a programme for a touring exhibition entitled War Pictures by British Artists, in which St Thomas' Hospital in Evacuation Quarters was to be included. Her notes arrived too late for inclusion, but all the same it's very good to be in a position to let Evelyn speak for herself, as quoted in Dr Gill Clarke's Evelyn Dunbar: War and Country:
It arose from the vivid impressions I received on first going into & going about in a big hospital. My original idea before I went there, was to do a record of the different Nurses in their various uniforms, but their activity transmuted this...

The hospital is St Thomas's, or a part of St Tho evacuated to Pyrford, in Surrey, & I stayed there for some weeks, with freedom to wonder
[sic] about as I chose. The staff consisted of Pyrford nurses and sisters, and the various wartime auxiliaries - Red Cross, Nursing Auxiliary (N.A.) Civil Nursing Reserve (C.N.R.) and, of course, the Matron of St Tho. It was chiefly orthopaedic, and not entirely military. That is, they had a good many service men, but civilians as well, including a great many blitz cases. It used to be a children's hospital before the war.

I think, if people look at the picture, it's pretty simple (They usually send out a cloud of prejudicial steam and say they can't make head or tail of it...) - the nurse in the left upper corner is sterilising, the one next, filling hot water bottles, - the two in the ward bed making, the next one doing a dressing - The one on the left in the next tier is taking a temperature (I think). The little one in the spotted frock is a Sister in her office (their work is chiefly office work) & the back view red x nurse is going in to g
[illegible] keys. Then comes the matron, interviewing a Pyrford sister. The next one - in her spotted lace cap  - is measuring pdrysic [sic: physic?], the next two are doing a dressing.

Down below on the left are the pink-clad domestic staff with their big mob caps. Then there comes a night nurse with torch and keys (she is a charge nurse.) Next is a sluice, with an N.A. at the sink. Then there is the linen cupboard (in constant use) with the little N.A. at work in it. Last the plaster room, where a group of workers - from Pro: to sister, & a masseuse, are putting a patient into a plaster cast. (What a strange procedure this is.....)

The whole is a scene of everyday hospital tasks, a flat chequered background, with its wreath of crisply white aproned figures moving deftly and swiftly over it. Browns, greens, blue scarlet and white with a few sharp spottings of delicate pink - so it seemed to me.

Wish I could do it again - I'd do something a lot better.

The agreed fee, before submission, for St Thomas Hospital in Evacuation Quarters was 35 guineas, £36.75. On reception the War Artists' Advisory Committee was sufficiently impressed by its quality to double Evelyn's fee.

(Original text © Christopher Campbell-Howes. All rights reserved.)

Further reading...
EVELYN DUNBAR : A LIFE IN PAINTING by Christopher Campbell-Howes
is available to order online from
448 pages, 300 illustrations. £25

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