What happened to Dalou's Angel? A Casualty of the Health Service?

The last half century has seen a complete change of attitude about the kind of art which is appropriate in hospitals, one which must surely date back to the establishment of the NHS. It remains an open question whether better art has been produced as a result of a policy concerted in the interests of our health, or, as previously, from the whims of private benefactors and boards of trustees. It is a sad fact, if true, that the touching seventeenth-century stone figures of invalids from the old building causes distress to today’s patients at St Thomas’s when exhibited on the staircase of the modern hospital. It has even been suggested that the colour red is to be avoided in hospital art-work, as it is reminiscent of blood. The majority might now agree that it is no longer appropriate to treat patients as a captive audience for lessons in charity or exhortations, in the face of disease and death, to consider the prospects for their immortal souls. And yet, some of the greatest hospital art of the past had precisely that purpose.

The aim of the present article is to appeal for witnesses to the disappearance of an art-work which, though it might seem to belong to the now unpopular sermonizing category, was not originally produced as such. The work in question, a terracotta group of a seated angel with five infants, relates to a commission by Queen Victoria to the highly talented French sculptor, Jules Dalou in 1877, for a private memorial to those of her grandchildren who had either died in infancy or who had been stillborn. The Queen found the full-size group, which still exists at Windsor Castle, ‘very well done’. One reflection of her appreciation of Dalou’s skill, was her subsequent request for a smaller version, also in terracotta, measuring 70cm in height. Nearly half a century later, in 1924, one of George V’s daughters, Princess Mary, with the consent of her mother, Queen Mary, presented the smaller group to the Infants’ Hospital in Vincent Square, of which the princess was the royal patron. To honour this gift, the hospital seems to have commissioned a rather horrendous brass stand, on which it was photographed for illustration in the hospital’s annual report for that year. I am grateful to Brian Landy for bringing this to my attention.

In 1946 the Vincent Square Hospital was amalgamated with Westminster Hospital, and it finally closed in 1995. Although a certain number of furnishings from it ended up in the Westminster and Chelsea Hospital, a search conducted recently, in response to an enquiry by the author of this article, found no trace
or record of it.

The very Victorian sentiment of this piece must already have made it look dated in 1924. Even the sculptor, Dalou, felt dissatisfaction with much of the work which he had done in England, and the year 1878 was definitely one in which he decided to change tack. All the same, in its somewhat fevered way, recalling the pious sculpture of the baroque period, the group commemorating Queen Victoria’s grandchildren remains a moving creation. The full-size version at Windsor Castle is not accessible to the general public, so that this small replica would make a welcome addition to one of our national collections. It certainly seems strange that so prestigious a gift from a member of the royal family should have simply disappeared without trace. Hopefully, publicising its disappearance may produce some clues as to its whereabouts, although its re-appearance might raise some thorny questions about its rightful ownership.

Aurora Corio