The stunning murals were painted by Phoebe Anna Traquair at the height of her powers at the end of the 19th-century in the mortuary chapel of the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Edinburgh.
The hospital’s “Traquair Room” is still in use as a place where parents and other relatives can pay their last respects to their loved ones.
But with NHS Lothian intending to move the entire hospital to another site, Traquair supporters say they are concerned about the preservation of the artworks if the present site is redeveloped.
The health board, which runs the hospital, told Scotland on Sunday it does not plan to transfer them to the new site. Long-delayed plans for a new building at Little France were finally agreed last month, with the current site expected to be at the centre of a fierce bidding war from developers.
Rosemary Mann, secretary of the Mansfield Traquair Trust, which waged a 12-year battle to save another set of Traquair murals in an Edinburgh church, said the ideal scenario would be to move the murals to a gallery or museum.
“We are really just concerned that they are properly conserved,” Mann said.
“All we know for certain is that the hospital site will be developed in the future. It will be difficult to integrate the mortuary building into a housing development.”
The murals – described as “richly symbolic” by Historic Scotland – depict images of motherhood, redemption and the “journey of the spirit.”
Some of the artworks were painted by Traquair for the original children’s hospital, on Lauriston Place in 1885 and were then relocated to the new hospital – known as the Sick Kids – when it was built in the Sciennes area a decade later. Traquair agreed to expand her original vision for the murals, leading to the paintings which adorn the four walls and ceiling of the mortuary chapel.
Born in Dublin and apparently inspired by the Book Of Kells during her childhood, Traquair moved to Edinburgh after marrying the Perthshire-born palaeontologist Dr Ramsay Heatley Traquair. She provided detailed illustrations for his research but then branched out into more ambitious public works.
Traquair became the leading artist in the “arts and crafts movement” in Edinburgh and is also regarded as the first important professional female artist in Scotland.
More than £500,000 was spent to restore her celebrated murals in the former Mansfield Place Church in Edinburgh, with work taking around two years to complete. The scale and quality of the work led the church to be called “Edinburgh’s Sistine Chapel”. Traquair also painted murals for St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in the city’s west end.
Although the new hospital is not expected to be ready until 2017, the current site is expected to go on the market within the next 12 months with a price tag of at least £30 million.
Brian Currie, project director for the new Sick Kids hospital, said: “The tradition of art in healthcare is one that we will be continuing in our new hospital and we are currently in the process of identifying the wide range of artwork in the Royal Hospital for Sick Children to establish which items we will move to the new facility.
“We are also working, through our artists in residence programme to capture the memories and history of the current sick children’s hospital.
“The Traquair murals are an important part of this history and, while we are not expecting to move these to the new building, we would like to see the murals displayed somewhere they can be appreciated by the public. We hope to meet with members of the art and conservation community in the near future to discuss preserving this significant artwork.”
There are hopes that the Traquair murals may be transferred to one of the new art galleries being created at the National Museum of Scotland by 2016. However, a spokeswoman for the museum said: “While we recognise their importance from a cultural history perspective, due to the extraordinary fragility of the murals and the huge challenge of moving and displaying them, these are not items we are in a position to acquire.”
The city council and NHS Lothian will be drawing up a strict planning blueprint for the site before it goes onto the market. Ian Perry, convener of Edinburgh City Council’s planning committee, said: “The building is listed so there is protection in place for the murals and we are currently discussing the future of the site with the NHS.”