National Museums Scotland is being urged to step in to secure the future of murals painted for a children’s mortuary more than 130 years ago, amid growing fears they are at risk from a housing development.
Art historians want Phoebe Anna Traquair’s creations for Edinburgh’s Sick Kids Hospital – the Royal Hospital for Sick Children – to be relocated rather than left in situ when the NHS vacates the site.
They are trying to resist the creation of two private flats, which are proposed to be created in the mortuary building, around the murals, due to concerns they would be left to deteriorate there.
NHS Lothian, which is building a new £150 million hospital for sick children at Little France, agreed last year to sell the historic site in the Sciennes area in the centre of Edinburgh to Liverpool-based developers Downing.
The Dublin-born Traquair, who moved to Edinburgh after marrying Scottish palaeontologist Dr Ramsay Heatley Traquair in 1873, was a leading figure in the “arts and crafts movement” in Scotland and the nation’s first significant professional female artist.
When her husband was appointed Keeper of Natural History at the Museum of Science and Art (known today as the National Museum of Scotland) Traquair continued to provide detailed illustrations for her husband’s research papers.
In 1884 the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Edinburgh received a request from the Hospital Ladies’ Committee for a chapel space “where the bodies can be left reverently and lovingly for the parents before the burials”.
The small disused hospital coalhouse, measuring only 12 by eight feet, was found and in April 1885, Traquair was formally invited by the Social Union to paint the walls, marking her debut as a professional artist.
Her work for the Sick Kids hospital inspired a campaign by the Mansfield Traquair Trust, which was formed in 1993 to rescue Traquair murals at a 19th century church at Mansfield Place.
About £500,000 was spent restoring “Edinburgh’s Sistine Chapel”.
In a submission to the City of Edinburgh Council, the trust claims it would not be in the “long-term interests” of the Sick Kids hospital’s murals if they are put into private ownership. It states: “No proposals are presented for the practical management of the chapel, allowing public access to the art.
“Such a notable work should remain in public ownership and its future should be safeguarded (and not endangered) in the long-term. This cannot happen if it enters into private ownership.”
A National Museums Scotland spokesman said: “There is no doubting the cultural significance of the murals.
“It’s quite clear there are significant challenges, risks and potential costs whether they remain where they are or attempts are made to relocate them.”
A spokeswoman for Downing said: “We’ve discussed the future of the murals with National Museums Scotland, Historic Environment Scotland and the Mansfield Traquair Trust with a view to ensuring their future.”