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State of the Barts

This year celebrates nine centuries of the healing arts at Barts Hospital – and big plans are afoot

By Oliver Bennett

Will Palin stands on the staircase with Hogarth's frieze in the background
Will Palin, the new head of Barts Heritage Trust. Photo: Oliver Bennett

Sometimes in London one feels as if there are no stones left unturned that everything has been seen, discussed and given a price tag.

But St Bartholomew’s, the historic hospital campus just south of Smith- field, still has a real thrill of discovery. Take a walk though the 1702-vintage Henry VIII Gate from Smithfield, past St Bartholomew the Less and its 15th-century church tower, and one ends in a magnificent square reminiscent of Somerset House. Then – piece de resistance – in the north-east corner, there’s a magnificent stairwell painted by William Hogarth which leads to the Great Hall, a masterpiece of classical symmetry. This glorious set-piece could be one of the splendours of central London, but by dint of being part of a hard-working hospital, it has been shuttered for years and certainly needs some care.

This coming year will begin to change that as Barts celebrates its 900th anniversary in 2023. Will Palin, the new head of Barts Heritage Trust, is set to spruce them up and his plan is to bring this amazing and under-celebrated slice of London heritage to the public.

“It’s high time,” says Palin, who recently hosted King Charles to launch the anniversary year. “In the past Barts was always public. Visitors would come through the gate, pass the church, into the square then into the North Wing, up the Hogarth stairs and into the splendid Great Hall. Those are the theatrical episodes that architect James Gibbs wanted to create to ensure that whoever came here was captivated by the hospital.” The gentry would then give money – perhaps influenced by their own reckoning before God – and the hospital thrived.”

Those periwigged philanthropists seem quaint now, but the 18th century Great Hall modernised the hospital, leading straight to the present day. “Gibbs created a square with four separate wings and amazingly, three survive,” says Palin. His plan made the North Wing the ceremonial centre: where the hospital governors hosted fundraising banquets – hence the roll-call of donors’ names across the Great Hall’s walls from the 18th century to the present day. An intriguing name is that of Will’s father, TV personality Michael Palin, who had two heart valves replaced at Barts in 2019 and now has pride of place as one of the donors.

The names only serve to make the gallery more dramatic. With two galleries of win- dows, a grand fireplace, a sublime ceiling by an Italian master plasterer and two portraits of Henry VIII – one in stained glass, – the other in oils – the Hall was, says Palin, “designed to be an ornament to London, that would raise it up towards the architecture of great European classical cities.” That link with royalty continues – King Charles is the charity’s patron, and in 2021 the hospital treated Prince Philip.

But the big idea is to bring it to the public’s attention. “After restoration we want this building to be an accessible part of the Clerkenwell cultural scene,” adds Palin. And that will take most of a £9m budget, of which just £600,000 still needs to be found. By 2025 it should be open to the public, without any charge.

The main attraction is the Great Hall, but the Hogarth staircase is the jewel in the crown. How did it happen? “When the hospital’s governors completed the North Wing they wanted a fashionable Italian artist to do the staircase murals,” says Palin. “They were very prestigious. But when Hogarth heard about this, he wanted to do it. As he was a local boy, born around the corner [in Bartholomew Close] and with strong links to the hospital, he knew this was something he wanted to do.” As Hogarth had by then earned a lot of money from his famous set of paintings, A Rake’s Progress, he did it for free and with two telling scenes from the scriptures in the Pool of Bethesda and the Good Samaritan. “The paintings are as relevant now as they were then,” says Palin. St Bart’s goes back to the foundation of the Priory by Rahere, the courtier and pilgrim who lies in the nave of Great St Bart’s (see EC1 Echo 15). Both churches – Great St Bart’s and Little St Bart’s – have their own 900th anniversary celebrations, but it’s important for Barts Heritage Trust that its plans honour the working hospital, a leading heart and cancer centre. “We’re all under the Barts banner trying to make the most out of the 900th anniversary,” says Palin. “It’s very exciting.”

There are already signs of change. Quite recently, cars could drive into the square – no longer – and there are other signs of improvement, although the astonishing Barts Pathology Museum (see EC1 Echo 6) will remain part of the teaching university, Queen Mary. But one of the most far-reaching aspects of the restoration of Barts is how it will link up to Clerkenwell and Smithfield Market.

“The areas around the market are going to be very important to us,” says Palin. With new landscaping, and greater pedestrian and cycle friendliness, links will be made to the wider area. “This is really important because Smithfield Market has acted as a separator between Clerkenwell and Barts,” says Palin. It’s hoped that the market’s Grand Avenue will become a vital artery, and when the meat market leaves – still a subject of fraught debate – one idea is that it will host shops, cafes and bars that complement Barts. In a strange piece of symmetry, the market might itself be used for medical research as it has lots of subterranean space and Barts is in discussions with Queen Mary University about taking research clinics in the basement. “There’s lots of work to be done on our part to make sure it’s welcoming,” says Palin. “I think it’s really exciting and we’re going to learn a lot. But I want to go into it with an open mind.”

This harmonious mix of hospitality and health may be rather visionary. Even now the square is used by patients, a direction that Palin and Barts encourages.

“There’s a real sense that ill people need beautiful places, and the more we can work together to make those links the better,” he says. “Part of this project is to work with clinical teams to look at ways in which these beautiful spaces can be of benefit.

“When my dad had his heart done, he was wheeled across the courtyard by a very proud nurse who showed him the Hogarth paintings. It was wonderful – an inspirational part of the recovery programme.”

Visit barts 900.org

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