Royal Free Hospital under fire for replacing art gallery with development plans

Prof Lorna Secker-Walker says it's difficult to see why the Royal Free Hospital removed the art gall

Prof Lorna Secker-Walker says it's difficult to see why the Royal Free Hospital removed the art gallery. Picture: Polly Hancock - Credit: Polly Hancock

Patients and former professionals at the Royal Free Hospital have expressed their “dismay” at the removal of its rolling ground floor art exhibition.

A collection of local artwork was taken down from the main corridor linking the front desk and main body of the building in Pond Street, Hampstead.

Known as the Symons Gallery, the space was in constant use by the Hampstead Arts Council and became a conduit between local artists and residents.

But the association’s longstanding presence at the heart of the hospital has been terminated after the Royal Free decided the corridor would no longer be available for exhibiting paintings.

Instead, the wall opposite the atrium is now occupied by a display explaining the proposed development of the new UCL Institute of Immunity and Transplantation on the hospital site.

Lorna Secker-Walker, a retired professor at the Royal Free Hospital Medical School and frequent visitor to the hospital, said: “That project is not something people want to read about when they are walking down that corridor.

“Walking down the main corridor in a major hospital can be daunting. Until recently, the Royal Free was a cheerful exception.”

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Prof Walker, of Frognal Rise, Hampstead, added: “I am really missing the cheering sight of works by living artists. Apart from uplifting the spirit, there was always the satisfaction of buying an original work of art either for oneself or as a present.

“It’s difficult to see why the arrangement was stopped.”

The gallery was a source of income for the Royal Free Charity as well as artists, with 10 per cent of sales donated to the hospital’s medical research trust.

Its walls have stood bare for much of the past four months, however, except for a plaque dedicated to former Royal Free consultant physician and cardiologist Cecil Symons, who advocated the introduction of a gallery to help patients relax.

A retired psychologist living locally to the hospital, who asked to remain anonymous, said she was “dismayed” by the decision.

“There is a lot of empirical research evidence which demonstrates the therapeutic value of pictures in hospitals,” she said.

“They stimulate wellbeing and lift the spirits of people who are often feeling anxious. Now, however, one is greeted by a drab, blank wall. Removing these pictures is a step backwards in creating a welcoming hospital environment.”

A Royal Free spokeswoman said: “The Royal Free Hospital ceased exhibiting paintings by members of the Hampstead Artists Council as we are commissioning a new exhibition focusing on the history of the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust, which will occupy this space.

“Until then the space is being used to exhibit displays informing patients and visitors about the major redevelopments occurring on the site.”

Artworks are displayed at other locations throughout the hospital building, she said.