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The Mission of Mercy: Florence Nightingale receiving the Wounded at Scutari

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The Mission of Mercy: Florence Nightingale receiving the Wounded at Scutari

by Jerry Barrett
Oil on canvas, 1857
57 7/8 in. x 85 7/8 in. (1470 mm x 2182 mm) overall
NPG 6202

Inscriptionback to top

Signed and dated in red paint at lower left-hand corner: ‘Jerry Barrett 18[…]’;
on strip of white ground (25 mm wide) around outer edges, pinholes and pencil inscriptions (lines, crosses and numbers at 25 mm intervals), part of squaring-up process.
On back, on stretcher bars, small paper label inscr.: ‘2829 / Davey’;
and inscr. in chalk: ‘536401 P. Bates for Chester / MN 364 VIC’.

This portraitback to top

Like many Victorian paintings, Jerry Barrett’s The Mission of Mercy: Florence Nightingale receiving the Wounded at Scutari was painted with an eye to its reproductive potential. This and Barrett’s earlier work, Queen Victoria’s First Visit to her Wounded Soldiers, 1856 (NPG 6203), were exhibited and published as prints in 1858, when the post-Crimea patriotic mood was still intense. The artist was praised for selecting unusual aspects of modern warfare, and for introducing a wealth of detail and portraits from life. The prints circulated widely, but the paintings themselves disappeared into a private collection in 1859, and only re-emerged in 1993, when they were acquired by the National Portrait Gallery at auction.

Barrett is now little known but during the 1850s he exhibited historical and genre paintings at the Royal Academy, and continued to do so until 1883. [1] In 1856, encouraged by the purchase by Thomas Agnew of NPG 6203, he planned a second Crimean subject, to be painted in situ and centring on Florence Nightingale. The Treaty of Paris was signed on 30 March, ending the war; and Agnew offered to pay his travel expenses. So Barrett left his London studio and taking a friend, Henry Newman, went to Scutari, to find ‘an interesting setting for Florence Nightingale’s figure’ and, crucially, to persuade the portrait-averse lady to pose for him. [2] They arrived in May 1856, and were provided with a room high up in the Barrack Hospital: No. 2 ward, Corridor 1. Newman’s letters provide descriptions of life as the hospitals and stores emptied out. They also contain brilliant accounts of Nightingale’s clashes with Barrett; the first took place on 7 July. He wrote:

You will be glad to know that the first interview with Miss Nightingale is over; it was a trying one, and left a painful impression. She received us just as a merchant would a visitor who came at business hours. She has a sensible, good face, and straightforward business manners. She stood all the time, and after having told her the object of our calling upon her, namely, to interest her in the picture we were painting, and that Jerry had just finished a large picture in London, about which the Queen had interested herself, we proposed to call on her again in a day or two, when she might be a little less engaged; Jerry fearing just at that juncture she would have said ‘No’. [3]

Barrett’s hopes of sweetening Nightingale with references to Queen Victoria fell flat. A subsequent interview went better, but she still refused to sit; in Newman’s words:

On the 8th [July] she came to our studio, saw the picture, was pleased with it, took an interest in the sketch of the Queen’s visit to Chatham, and on Jerry’s saying ‘And now, Miss Nightingale, the success of my undertaking depends on you. Will you allow me to take your portrait?’ she smiled, and only said ‘Really, I fear I shall not be able to find time’. [4]

On the third interview, on 13 July, Nightingale grew exasperated, declaring that sitting

might interfere with her mission; that the people of England had never assisted her in her efforts, and that she must decline doing anything that would bring her more before the public; and that she had given the subject her serious consideration, and had no reason to think that any argument would induce her to change her determination. [5]

At this point Barrett, the success of whose first Crimean painting had hinged on the ‘truthfulness’ of the portraits, would have been equally angry. ‘Jerry is to write her an appeal this evening, and then, if the reply is still unfavourable, he will carry on the attack in England through some influential quarters,’ wrote Newman. [6]

Nightingale’s response to the appeal, sent from her quarters to his, a few hospital corridors away, was withering and final:

Your statement of my having caused you serious inconvenience by declining to sit for your picture cannot but cause me distress. As, however, I declined from no want of willingness to forward your wishes, but from a principle which I had very fully considered & which indeed had been forced upon me by the experience of the whole time during which I have been engaged on this work, I think you will see that to give a different answer to your request than the one I have already given is impossible to me. I repeat that to hear that this answer causes inconvenience is painful to me – although I have had no share in causing any such disappointments, for my answer would have been the same before your coming out as now, had the request then been made. I must also repeat that publicity has been the cause of the greatest draw-backs I have experienced in the prosecution of the work committed to my charge – & that it is in consequence of this conviction that I have determined in no way to forward the making a show of myself or of any person, or thing connected with that work, though I cannot always prevent them or me being made a show of. [7]

Barrett and Newman remained at Scutari until 30 July 1856. The ‘interesting setting for Florence Nightingale’s figure’ – viz. the west gate to the hospital – had been found in May, [8] and for about six weeks they gathered material to recreate a scene of the reception of the Crimean wounded, as it would have looked at the height of the war, quite different from the decommissioning scenes that surrounded them. Newman’s references to ‘a painting’ in the studio are very likely to NPG 4305, the preparatory sketch. Lord William Paulet sat to Barrett in Scutari, [9], and Colonel Charles Sillery and Sir William Linton probably did also. Of the fourteen identified figures in NPG 6202, many had already left for England and sat to him later. [10]

The following May Barrett wrote to invite Nightingale to see NPG 6202 in the London studio: ‘My large picture of the arrival of The Sick & Wounded at Scutari will I trust soon be finished and I venture to hope that you will do me the very great favour of calling some time after the middle of next week in order that I may show it to you.’ [11] When the Bracebridges, Miss Tebbutt and other Scutari acquaintances sat to the artist, he wrote to Agnew in July, ‘they particularly begged I would allow them to bring a friend or two, in some instances “a very intimate friend”’ – surely a reference to Nightingale herself. [12] Fanny Nightingale, Florence’s mother, also visited the studio. But there is no evidence that Nightingale, busy at the time with the Royal Commission on the Health of the Army, but always busy, and then busy and ill, ever sat to Barrett.

Her portrait in the picture is nevertheless instantly recognisable. In Scutari Barrett snatched a few life sketches; see NPG 2939 and NPG 3303, and possibly others now untraced. [13] In the preparatory sketch, NPG 4305, she represents mercy; in NPG 6202 the expression is more alert, the pose that of a vigilant administrator, and the grey dress, spotlit, a symbol of Protestant rationality amongst the scarlet uniforms and Ottoman silks. [14] In the months between painting the sketch and the final work, photographs of Nightingale began to circulate, and it is largely thanks to these fresh images that Barrett achieved his ‘truthful’ portrait. To emphasize the ‘truthfulness’ of his record, Barrett has inserted a self-portrait at a window in the hospital wall, poised above and looking down at the figure of Nightingale.

The painting was finished by the end of June 1857 and Barrett showed it to Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace in early July. [15] At the time he was painting a ‘reduced copy’, now with Forbes Magazine Galleries; for details see ‘Florence Nightingale, All known portraits, Paintings, drawings, sculptures and prints, Contemporary portraits from life, 1857’. In August the large painting was bought by Agnew and Sons for £450 including the copyright. [16] Samuel Bellin was chosen to engrave it, while Queen Victoria’s First Visit to her Wounded Soldiers was given to Thomas Oldham Barlow; prints (with associated keys) were published in 1858. The paintings had been exhibited in May 1857, at Hayward and Leggatt, in the City of London, to whet the public’s appetite for acquiring such ‘really national’ engravings, and they attracted ‘crowds of enthusiastic admirers’. [17] In a notice on the exhibition, the Athenaeum sympathised with the dilemmas faced by painters of ‘occasional newspaper subjects’ and ‘newspaper painters who strive to be historians’. Specifically, the reviewer was concerned that the ‘necessity of introducing portraits’ and ‘hard facts’ into The Mission of Mercy risked compromising the artist’s vision; the lack of idealism in Nightingale’s portrait was regrettable, but the whole was a ‘creditable work, and should succeed as an engraving’. He wrote:

There can be no doubt that the chapter in the history of the Crimean war which Mr. Barrett has selected, or has had selected, for illustration, was in every way worthy of being placed on record. It gave modern war a new and more chivalrous character; … it showed us a Joan of Arc with the sword put away, and doing a nobler work. … The composition is unaffected and agreeable, an air of truthfulness pervades the whole scene, in spite of the artist having been bound by the necessity of introducing portraits, and by hard facts, not always comfortably presentable in a well-composed picture. … It was unfortunate, yet unavoidable, to have to represent the heroine in dull, sober colours; to plait [i.e., pleat] her dress so meagrely, and to pinch up her tight prim cap. The result of this is the stern fact, that the figure of the heroine is not the one the eye first lights on, or delights most to dwell on. The soldiers, however, are manly and brave, well and honestly painted … all are picturesque, in their torn clothes and regimentals soiled with blood and mire. [18]

Bellin’s mixed media engraving was titled Florence Nightingale at Scutari: A Mission of Mercy and published in an edition of over 1,000, plus hundreds of artist’s proofs, and it was the spread of these impressive prints that turned Barrett’s image of Nightingale into a national icon (see NPG D43044).

The paintings were eventually bought from Agnew and Sons by a Liverpool shipbuilder, Sir Edward Bates, 1st Bt, of Gryn Castle, near Holywell, Wales, in 1859. [19] They then dropped from public view [20] until put up for sale by the same family at Christie’s on 5 March 1993, lots 107 and 108, potentially interested bodies having been tipped off beforehand. The Florence Nightingale Museum was keen to acquire The Mission of Mercy, and in February 1993 wrote to the Gallery: ‘At the end of the day, we remain competitors. The Museum Trustees are convinced that their Museum, small though it is, is the most relevant place for Gerry [sic] Barrett’s painting of “Scutari”.’ [21] But the estimate for The Mission of Mercy was £120,000–£180,000, and shortly before the sale the museum decided it could not and would not bid against the Gallery. In the end, the hammer price for The Mission of Mercy (alone) was £170,000 and, thanks to important grants from the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF) and the National Art Collections Fund (NACF), [22] the Gallery was able to acquire both Crimean paintings at what its director declared to be ‘advantageous’ prices. [23]

The paintings, which are approximately the same size and set in closely matching frames, [24], went on display in the Gallery on 23 March 1993 on a wave of publicity, and the press release noted the historical significance:

These pictures will occupy an especially poignant position [in the collection], since it was immediately after the tragedies of the Crimean War that the Gallery was founded in 1856, to collect and display portraits of great British men and women such as Florence Nightingale, which would be an inspiration to future generations. [25]

NPG 6202 was relined in the twentieth century before acquisition. Hidden under the sight edge of the frame is a 25mm-wide strip of bare ground scored with pencil and other squaring-up marks. There are two other versions of The Mission of Mercy: one is at the Forbes Magazine Galleries, New York, as mentioned above, and the other, currently untraced, was formerly with Christie’s in 2012: for details see ‘Florence Nightingale, All known portraits, Paintings, drawings, sculptures and prints, Contemporary portraits from life, 1857’. At the National Portrait Gallery, see the related works NPG 2939, NPG 2939a, NPG 3303, NPG 4305, NPG 6203 and NPG D43044.

Fourteen figures identified
From left to right:
Sir William Linton (1801–1880)
Sir Henry Knight Storks(1811–1874)
Alexis Benoît Soyer (1810–1858)
Miss Tebbutt (1810–1896)
Robert Robinson (active 1857)
Mary Clare (Georgina Moore) (1814–1874)
William Cruickshank (died 1858)
Charles Sillery
Jerry Barrett (1824–1906)
Florence Nightingale (1820–1910)
Eliza Roberts
Selina Bracebridge (c.1800–1874)
Charles Bracebridge (1799–1872)
Lord William Paulet (1804–1893)

Carol Blackett-Ord

Footnotesback to top

1) For a photograph of Jerry Barrett, early to mid-1860s, see a carte-de-visite by John & Charles Watkins, NPG Ax14931.
2) Henry Newman (1818–1908) was a close friend of Barrett; his papers are deposited at Friends’ House L., London. His nephew Thomas Prichard Newman edited a selection of his letters; see [Newman] 1910.
3) [Newman] 1910, pp.550–51.
4) [Newman] 1910, p.551.
5) [Newman] 1910, p.551.
6) [Newman] 1910, p.552.
7) Letter from F. Nightingale to J. Barrett, 18 July 1856, LMA, LMA/H01/ST/ NC /03/SU/E/193.
8) See ‘Florence Nightingale, All known portraits, Paintings, drawings, sculptures and prints, Contemporary portraits from life, 1856’ for a preliminary wash sketch for The Mission of Mercy.
9) [Newman] 1910, p.552.
10) Letter from J. Barrett to T. Agnew, 3 July 1857, NPG Archive, Scrapbook relating to Queen Victoria’s First Visit to her Wounded Soldiers, NPG46/63/2/1/1.
11) Letter from J. Barrett to F. Nightingale, 23 May 1857, Claydon House Trust, N276.
12) Letter from J. Barrett to T. Agnew, 3 July 1857, NPG Archive, Scrapbook relating to Queen Victoria’s First Visit to her Wounded Soldiers, NPG46/63/2/1/1.
13) [Newman] 1910, p.552.
14) ‘The picture of her at Scutari is of a strong-willed, strong-nerved energetic woman, gentle and pitiful to the wounded, but always masterful among those with whom she worked’ (Paget 1912); ‘picture’ is here used metaphorically.
15) Letter from J. Barrett to T. Agnew, 3 July 1857, NPG Archive, Scrapbook relating to Queen Victoria’s First Visit to her Wounded Soldiers, NPG46/63/2/1/1.
16) Reference from Agnew and Sons’ stock books; see note, NPG RP 6202.
17) Wintle c.1911, p.124.
18) ‘Fine-art Gossip’, Athenaeum, 29 May 1858, p.163.
19) Confusingly, in Agnew's stock books it is recorded that The Mission of Mercy was bought by James Fallows on 20 Apr. 1859 for £450; see note in NPG RP 6202. For another reference to early ownership of NPG 6203 and 6202 (or of copies), see document entitled 'Pictures A/c', a list of picture transactions, March–October (no year, no further details), which indicates that 'Agnew per Williams' acquired Jerry Barrett's two Crimean paintings on 31 Mar. for £400 the pair; NPG RP 6202.
20) In the twentieth century the paintings were ‘inaccessible in a private collection’ (Lalumia 1984, p.84) until 1993, known only through black and white photographs; see Wood 1976, p.26, fig.14, and p.230, fig.243; and Lalumia 1984, plates 38 and 39.
21) See NPG RP 6202.
22) Letter from R.S. Sawyer, trustee, Florence Nightingale M., to J. Hayes, 18 Feb. 1993, NPG RP 6202.
23) Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox Ltd bid for both paintings on behalf of the Gallery at Christie’s, 5 Mar. 1993. With regard to lot 107 alone (The Mission of Mercy), after buyer’s premium and VAT, the price rose from £170,000 hammer price to £191,737.50; but at the final count this figure was lower thanks to grants of £42,473 from the NACF and £100,000 from the NHMF.
24) NPG 6202 is overall about 10mm smaller than NPG 6203 in both width and height; and the frames’ decorative friezes differ.
25) NPG press release, Mar. 1993.

Referenceback to top

Dossey 1999
Dossey, B.M., Florence Nightingale: Mystic, Visionary, Healer, Springhouse, PA, 1999.

Keller 2013
Keller, U., The Ultimate Spectacle A Visual History of the Crimean War, New York and London, 2013.

Lalumia 1984
Lalumia, M.P., Realism and Politics in Victorian Art of the Crimean War, Ann Arbor, MI, 1984.

[Newman] 1910
T.P.N. [Newman, T.P., ed.], ‘Letters from Scutari’, Friends’ Quarterly Examiner, vol.XLIV, 1910.

Paget 1912
Paget, S., ‘Nightingale, Florence (1820–1910)’, DNB, London, 1912.

Wood 1976
Wood, C., Victorian Panorama: Paintings of Victorian Life, London, 1976.

Conservationback to top

Conserved, 1994; 1997.

Provenanceback to top

Thomas Agnew & Sons, 1856; Sir Edward Bates, 1st Bt, 1859, thence by descent; Christie’s, 5 March 1993 (107); purchased by Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox Ltd on behalf of the National Portrait Gallery, with help from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund, March 1993.

Exhibitionsback to top

Leggatt and Hayward, London, 1858.

Alexander Hasse, Leeds, 1859

Reproductionsback to top

Wood 1976, p.230, fig.243.

Lalumia 1984, pl.38.

Fine Victorian Pictures, Drawings and Watercolours, exh. cat., Christie’s, 1993, p.79.

Maas, J., ‘Two Paintings by Jerry Barrett’, NACF Annual Review 1993, p.19.

NPG Triennial Report 1990–1993, 1993, p.32.

Dossey 1999, p.130.

Keller 2013, p.232, fig.182.


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