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Moorfields Eye Hospital

Location: the Richard Desmond Children’s Eye Centre, Moorfields Hospital, London

Artists: Samantha Bryan, Lucy Casson, Yuko Shiraishi and Alison Turnbull


Four artists were commissioned by ArtOffice to create artworks for the new Richard Desmond Children’s Eye Centre at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London, which opened in February 2007. Two of the commissions in particular, by Alison Turnbull and Yuko Shiraishi, have made a big impact on the whole of the building. Turnbull worked closely with Penoyre & Prasad, the architects for the centre, and produced drawings for the dramatic configuration of louvres on the building’s façade. Shiraishi created a wall painting that extends from floor to ceiling on five floors, connecting the building vertically. The other art commissions are on a more intimate scale and are located in the waiting areas: fairy tableaux by Samantha Bryan and sculptures of tree dwelling creatures by Lucy Casson.


The Richard Desmond Children’s Eye Centre at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London opened in February 2007. It was financed entirely by trusts, foundations and individuals, and is ‘the largest hospital anywhere in the world solely dedicated to the prevention, treatment and cure of children’s eye disease’ (www.moorfields.nhs.uk). Three thousand operations and 15,000 outpatients appointments take place at the children’s eye centre each year; only ten percent of patients have no sight at all. The facility provides a physical link between Moorfields Eye Hospital and the nearby Institute of Ophthalmology at University College London, which undertakes related research.


In 2003, Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation Trust appointed the design team, including architects Penoyre & Prasad, to work on its new children’s eye centre. At the briefing stage it was decided that art was needed within the hospital.

Mally Scrutton, a ward sister at the children’s eye centre, says: ‘the reason we wanted art was to try and make it as family friendly as possible, with distractions and wonderful colours, and things that make you smile. It all helps to break down the clinical experience. We’ve had criticisms from staff, but the money for the art was raised specifically for it and not for medical purposes.’

Penoyre & Prasad has a particularly strong commitment to working with artists. Sunand Prasad writes, in Transformations (2007), a book about the work of Penoyre & Prasad: ‘The elusive goal in architecture today is how to take the everyday and represent it in a meaningful way; to make a tangible emotional connection between a building and its customers, users and public… The artist could provide the missing voice: at its simplest an interpreter layering narrative onto the ordered background; or more profoundly, through a deeper engagement communicating the essence of the building or institution.’

Prasad also cites studies at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, published in 2003, in which ‘it has been found that art has a specific therapeutic capacity [and] that the presence of visual art and music reduced stress, reduced analgesic take up and shortened recovery times.’

Appointment of ArtOffice

Tenders were invited from public art agencies, a shortlist was selected and representatives of the hospital trust, members of the user group, representatives from the design team and the contractor conducted interviews. This led to ArtOffice’s appointment, in late 2003.

ArtOffice is run by Isabel Vasseur, a pioneer of the eighties public art movement who has commissioned art for several other hospitals in the past. She had worked with Sunand Prasad on a number of previous projects and is quick to credit him with considerable understanding of what artists can contribute: ‘he is outstanding’, she says.

ArtOffice’s tender document includes proposals for: a collaborative piece by an artist and the architects to be integrated within the fabric of the building; three site-specific art commissions; residencies and educational activities, and the purchase and loan of artworks. The budget for this was set at just over £190,000 and an additional £49,000 was proposed as ArtOffice’s fee. At that stage, it was anticipated that the hospital trust would contribute £100,000 to the programme and that ArtOffice would fundraise the balance.

ArtOffice established a steering group that included paediatricians, nurses (including Mally Scrutton), a representative from the Friends of Moorfields Hospital, the architects, Project Director Grainne Baron and Iwona Blazwick from Whitechapel Art Gallery. ArtOffice’s main project manager for the scheme was Jennifer Mojica.

The commissioning of artworks took place over a protracted period, from mid-2004 to mid-2007. The delays were due mainly to problems the hospital trust had in raising funds. The trust was eventually forced to reduce its contribution to the art programme from £100,000 to £50,000 and ArtOffice revised its budgets for the commissions, dropping the idea of purchasing and loaning artworks, and offering to work for a percentage of the total expenditure. There was a determination, however, not to lose the aspirations everyone had at the beginning: ‘… the consideration of scale and visual impact should not be lost. Instead, a reduction in number of projects should allow for the same quality of ambition throughout’ (ArtOffice Revised Visual Arts Programme report, 21.2.05).

The recruitment of artists

ArtOffice and Penoyre & Prasad agreed that an artist would work on designs for the façade of the building. In summer 2004, ArtOffice discussed a long-list of artists with members of the panel and the architects and Alison Turnbull was contracted to collaborate with them.

During the winter of 2005-06, ArtOffice recruited the artists for three further commissions following the more usual standard public art procedure. First, ArtOffice presented documentation of previous work by long-lists of possible artists to the panel and a short-list of six artists was drawn up. Second, the short-listed artists each made a visit to the construction site of the hospital, and were issued with a brief and paid a fee of £1,000 to produce designs. Third, the panel interviewed the short-listed artists, asked them to present their ideas, and decided who would be awarded the commissions.

Ward sister Mally Scrutton says: ‘there was spectacular stuff in the portfolios that ArtOffice showed us. But we had very little to spend. So we chose those artists who came up trumps within the budget.’

The four commissions

Alison Turnbull’s design input to the window louvres

The building’s extensive glass façade faces south and so it was necessary to have louvres to prevent glare and over-heating. By summer 2004, Penoyre & Prasad was working on the design, distribution and materials of the individual louvres, and at this point Alison Turnbull joined the team to take part in this work and determine how the louvres would be configured.

Turnbull is a painter who has often used existing drawings as a source for her work: architectural plans; botanical diagrams; astronomers’ maps. She found a drawing used by ophthalmologists called the Amsler Grid, which is used to test a condition called macular degeneration. Patients with this condition see distortions when looking at a standard grid. She began to consider the hospital façade ‘as a grid that has its horizontal axis pulled out of alignment’.

Turnbull drew grids based on the proportions of the hospital façade, folded the paper, made photographs, and then drew on top of the photographs. She then drew distorted grids on successive layers of tracing paper until the eventual design emerged. But as she explains, ‘It was very collaborative -- I would bring my drawings to meetings, we’d discuss them and sometimes continue developing them together. I don’t really think of it as exclusively my work.’ She was part of the team’s detailed design discussions, too: ‘I’d go in and look at the architects’ drawings and balsa wood models and talk about how the blades might be constructed and fixed in place. And I persuaded them not to use colour on the metal louvres, and have three different shades of silver grey instead.’

Turnbull had stopped working on the scheme when the architects decided to make a central cabin on the façade bright orange and to use coloured lighting on the louvre blades at night. She reflects: ‘I have no problem at all with the light installation but I was surprised to see that orange box – in my memory of my many discussions with Penoyre & Prasad it had never been coloured. I was emphatic that the exterior of the building shouldn’t be coloured. But that’s the risk of true collaboration. You lose the kind of control that you have when working on your own.’ This is realism rather than regret on the part of the artist: ‘it was a concentrated period of work and quite straightforward really. Afterwards I continued to make drawings -- and two small paintings -- that relate to the notion of a distorted grid. So this project has fed my work in the studio.’

Describing both the working process and the lighting of the louvres, Neil Allfrey from Penoyre & Prasad writes: ‘Design workshops are an integral part of the design process within our office. In this particular case Alison became involved at the point where a fresh pair of eyes was useful. Alison helped bring clarity to the composition of the solar shading which up to that point had been a rational distribution of the louvres with technical parameters. The façade lighting was commissioned by the trust through a private donation. The scheme is by Light Projects Ltd and involves individual lighting of each of the façade louvres. At night this accentuates the composition, adding colour and movement'. (email November 2007)

Mally Scrutton adds: ‘the light show completely transforms a grotty side street. It’s a complete and utter joy.’

Yuko Shiraishi’s wall painting

Penoyre & Prasad wanted a large wall painting that would extend over five floors of a prominent stairwell that connects the ground floor entrance to the main waiting areas. Yuko Shiraishi reflected that although it was a children’s hospital, ‘it was important not to do something too childish’. She is an abstract artist but decided, like Turnbull, to create something that relates to an ophthalmologist’s diagram: ‘I chose to work with an image of the retinal ganglion cells. It’s an image that’s already quite abstract and geometrical.’

Located in the inner retina, retinal ganglion cells receive visual information that is transmitted to the brain via threadlike extensions, or axons. In Shiraishi’s painting, these axons extend vertically from floor to floor of the hospital, connecting at intervals with other cell components.

The artist enjoyed developing her ideas for the wall painting: ‘I was left alone to get on with what I wanted to do – that was really nice.’ During the preparation of her drawings, she worked with a trained architect and computer specialist. And she measured everything again herself: ‘there are always slight differences between the plans and the actual building.’

In common with the other artists on the scheme, Shiraishi produced a schedule of works and a health & safety report, but getting clearance for the scaffolding and gaining access proved very difficult: ‘it’s stricter and stricter and just not like how artists used to work in churches. The regulations will kill public art.’ During December 2006 and January 2007 she worked for twenty days with six artists to execute the painting in thirty colours.

Mally Scrutton: ‘She gave us a cut price. It was nothing like her going rate. The colours are so pretty, and are just right. It’s a clever design of the visual pathway.’

Samantha Bryan’s fairy tableaux

Samantha Bryan also had just one meeting at the hospital – the interview – before making and installing her work. Like the other artists, she feels the freedom she was given was beneficial, especially having been inspired by appreciative comments from hospital staff at her interview.

She made two miniature tableaux in glass domes: in one, a fairy is undergoing an eye test to check that she is flight worthy; in the other, some fairy flight goggles are being tested. Her fairy characters have ‘a brass wire skeleton, hand stitched and hand dyed leather suits, and paper clay faces. Their helmets and adornments are found bits and bobs such as acorns and feathers.’ The tableaux reward very close attention: there are myriad details such as ‘inventions’ made of soldered sheet and wire brass, and tiny floorboards made of ‘bits of found painted wood’. As Bryan explains, ‘the idea is that my work removes the viewer temporarily from what’s going on around them and makes them smile.’

A series of delays caused by late payments and the snagging of the building meant that Bryan was unable to install work until July 2007, several months after the hospital opened. And due to miscommunications between the different parties involved, the day of the installation was very fraught. One unforeseen problem was that in order to prevent trolleys colliding with them, Bryan was obliged to install her tableaux higher than she would have liked, especially given that the main visitor group is children.

Mally Scrutton: ‘They don’t appeal to children so much – they don’t look like fairies to them – but they really appeal to adults and teenage boys. It’s easy to cater for toddlers, so it’s good we have something for the older children.’

Lucy Casson’s sculptures of tree dwelling figures

The brief for this sculpture commission was extremely open, especially with regards to its location in the hospital. Lucy Casson felt that in the public areas, ‘the space was restricted, but there was height’. The panel commissioned her to make a number of figures that would be attached to the upper sections of the columns that run through the building.

Working with plaster polymer on a metal armature, Casson made six hand-modelled figures. They are based on ‘observations of people who evolve into creatures. I emphasise gesture, character and mood, and I can do more if I get away from the constraints of depicting humans directly. And at the time I made these figures, I had just been to Central America and looked at monkeys in trees.’

By attaching the figures to columns in the foyer and on two other floors, Casson has subtly transformed the columns into trees, and the waiting room into a jungle clearing. ‘I want to take people to a moment in another world’, she says. There are practical advantages to installing her sculptures so high up, too, as they are out of reach of inquisitive hands.

A few months into the project, Casson’s fee was cut and she had to scale down her work. On the other hand, like Shiraishi, she enjoyed being left alone to develop the work. The hospital also trusted her as being ‘up to the job’, in terms of the durability and safety of the sculptures. In her studio, she created a column with the same diameter as those at the hospital, and made her figures to fit that, and she installed them with a colleague over four days at the end of January 2007.

Neil Allfrey of Penoyre & Prasad writes: ‘Both Samantha and Lucy’s work add to the experience of the patients and staff. They particularly like the figures by Lucy Casson, perhaps because the children discover them slowly as they move through the building.’ (email November 2007)

Mally Scrutton: ‘Lucy’s creatures are the one uncontroversial thing about the whole building. They bring a smile to quite stressed people’s faces. Everyone is thrilled. They are no good for the blind, but the majority of the children that come here have eyesight.’

The sculptures are so popular that the trust commissioned a further small foyer piece to mark the opening of the building, and the nurses hope to commission further sculpture as a memorial to a colleague, Sister Ero, using monies that were donated when she died.


The hospital trust contributed £50,000 and in summer 2006, ArtOffice secured just over £43,000 from Arts Council England’s Grants for the Arts scheme.

The design fees paid to each of the six artists who were interviewed came to £6,000. The commissioned artists’ subsequent fees, including materials and installation, were: Samantha Bryan, £6,000; Lucy Casson, £18,000; Yuko Shiraishi, £30,000; Alison Turnbull, £4,000. Installation costs were £6,000 and ArtOffice’s fees were £23,000.

Key Issues

A true collaboration is a rare thing

Within the art world in general and public art practice in particular, there is increasing interest in the potential for artists to collaborate with other people: community groups, planners, architects. It is seldom achieved, however. Very often one party is simply not available at the time the other is [see Warwick Bar Soundwalk and Burnley Elevate Artist Injection case studies]. Or there can perhaps be an unconscious unwillingness to ‘let go’ and fully embrace joint working.

Alison Turnbull and architects at Penoyre & Prasad worked together in a remarkably productive way. When asked what the crucial ingredient for this had been, Turnbull said: ‘I was just asked to contact Sunand Prasad. There wasn’t a long drawn-out interview process. It wasn’t legislated from outside, so our collaboration could develop organically. And there was no waiting around for fundraising.’

Of course there has to be a basic ‘chemistry’ between people. And to draw a lesson from this example, the connection needs to be spontaneous and timely. If we are serious about collaboration within public art, we might need to argue the case for this actually very unorthodox ‘light touch’ approach.

Notes on the practicalities of the louvres

Arup’s Research and Development team was asked to advise on how the louvres would behave, including whether or not they would produce a “humming” noise. The tension in the cables was strengthened so that the south-west corner, which gets the worst of the wind, was protected. Interestingly, they found that the irregularity of the louvre blade pattern was a help, rather than a hindrance, “confusing the wind”.’ (The Richard Desmond Children’s Eye Centre, Moorfields Eye Hospital, published by Wordsearch, 2007)

‘The louvres are cleaned and maintained via a series of access walkways on each level, located between the glazed façade and the louvre grid.’ (Catherine Purves, Penoyre & Prasad)

Success on a reduced budget and despite extended delays

The art commissions were realiszed over an extended time period, due to difficulties in the hospital trust’s fundraising, the snagging of the building and delays in the release of payments from the contractor. This increased the overheads of three of the artists and ArtOffice, and also led to a reduction in anticipated fees. During the four and a half years from start to finish, there were inevitably changes in personnel that added complications, too.

Remarkably, the scale and ambition of the commissions did not suffer to any appreciable extent, and the art makes a real impact on the building, inside and out. This is due mainly to the tenacity of the artists. While they enjoyed being given space and freedom to develop their work, they were very much at the sharp end when problems arose.

The enthusiasm of staff during the interviews held the artists in good stead, however, and they also appreciated the commitment of Penoyre & Prasad and the guidance that ArtOffice gave.

© Angela Kingston 2008