Lucy Kemp-Welch At The Royal Exchange
On Armistice Day, we celebrate the work of Lucy Kemp-Welch and her mural Women’s Work in the Great War at the Royal Exchange in the City of London.
If the current development proposals are approved, this magnificent painting and the other murals in the Exchange will be bisected by a mezzanine, and a 25cm horizontal section of every picture masked by a silicone seal where the new floor meets the surface of the painting. In this scheme, the lower part of Lucy Kemp-Welch’s mural will become the background to a luxury retail space while the upper part will decorate a high-end restaurant or bar.
Women’s Work in the Great War 1914-1918 by Lucy Kemp-Welch
Lucy Kemp-Welch’s Women’s Work in the Great War was unveiled by Princess Mary in 1924 as the final panel, completing the series of twenty-four epic paintings by distinguished artists, commenced in 1892 at the Royal Exchange and comprising London’s most important series of murals. Lucy Kemp-Welch’s painting, alongside those by Sir Frank Salisbury and W L Wylie also depicting scenes from the war, reflected the significance of the Royal Exchange as a public space where Armistice Day services were held in subsequent years.
The campaign for women’s suffrage intensified before the First World War and its outbreak in 1914 offered an outlet for women to demonstrate their capabilities, both in the workplace and in public office. Lucy Kemp-Welch specialised in painting horses and, during the war, she designed a famous recruitment poster of a man on horseback entitled Forward! Forward to Victory! Enlist Now and undertook paintings of horses in military service. Kemp-Welch exhibited at the Whitechapel Gallery in April 1918, as part of a show of Women’s Work, including displays relating to heroic individuals such as Edith Cavell, amongst presentations devoted to munitions, hospitals, industry, canteens, honours and memorials, drawing 82,000 visitors in six weeks.
Her painting for the Royal Exchange comprises a group of female figures in the foreground, representative of the chief types of women’s war work, while in the background soldiers march away, planes fly overhead and battleships depart. On the left, a woman in khaki shifts boxes of munitions while two women clerical workers in yellow and red consult a ledger. Behind them, a woman in nurse’s uniform gazes out to sea and, at the highest point of the composition, stands a woman in the blue uniform of the Voluntary Aid Detachment with her hands poised upon a box of munitions which is being filled by her colleague. In front of them, another woman seated upon a pile of chains works a mechanical drill and an agricultural worker reaches for a spade and a pickaxe. To the far right, a widow sits isolated in grief with her two children.
Undertaking a mural on such a scale was a huge physical undertaking and it is a measure of Lucy Kemp-Welch’s commitment to her subject matter that, while working to complete the painting, she collapsed with exhaustion upon the scaffolding in February 1922 aged fifty-three. The doctor sent her away to Devon for three or four months rest and forbade all work, yet she returned – once she had recovered – and completed the painting.
Given the nature of Lucy Kemp-Welch’s Women’s Work in the Great War, its subject matter and cultural significance within the larger sequence of pictures which illustrate the history of London, it is profoundly disappointing to contemplate that this and the others may be bisected by mezzanine floors for the sake of creating more luxury retail and high-end catering space in the Royal Exchange.
The proposed technique of using a silicon seal against the surface of these paintings is untested. It is likely to create different conditions of humidity and temperature on either floor which will affect the different parts of the picture differently as they age, marring the paintings permanently. Equally, it is likely that the seal will collect dust and dirt so that, as the mezzanine floor moves subtly with the shifting tensions of the structure, this will create an abrasive action upon the surface of the paintings. Finally, the shopkeepers will be free to put objects in front of these paintings, there will be no protection to prevent wear and tear or the actions of over-zealous cleaners.
If the current proposal is permitted, damage to these murals is unavoidable. On Armistice Day, please write to object so that all these pictures, including Lucy Kemp-Welch’s Women’s Work in the Great War, may be preserved as a public record of the history of our city and the sacrifices made by our forebears, both men and women, for generations yet to come. You can view the planning application and object by clicking here to go to the City of London Planning website
Lucy Kemp -Welch
Sketch for Women’s Work in the Great War
Note on reverse of sketch
Interior of the Royal Exchange, illustrating the murals as they were intended to be viewed – Lucy Kemp-Welch’s Women’s Work in the Great War can be seen on the left of this photograph
The proposal for new retail and restaurant/bar spaces with a mezzanine bisecting the murals – Lucy Kemp-Welch’s Women’s Work in the Great War can be seen on the right of this graphic visualisation
Armistice Service at the Royal Exchange in 1928
Archive images courtesy Mercers Company
With thanks to Sally Woodcock of the Roberson Archive at the Hamilton Kerr Institute, University of Cambridge, for her help in the preparation of this article
You may also like to read my original article