Frederick Cayley Robinson: Acts of Mercy

I have chanced upon the Wellcome Trust sponsored exhibition at National Gallery the other day – Frederick Cayley Robinson’s Acts of Mercy and other paintings. While his work seems calm and serene at the outset, one discovers how the subtlety and flat colours combine to express both hope and resignation. This is related to the elusiveness Laura Cumming of The Guardian talks about in her art review of Robinson’s show.

I am rather fascinated with the recurrent motif of the plain blue and white chinaware. I feel that these brightly coloured jugs and bowls play a vital role, putting into the foreground a sense of daily duty and ritual. The bright chinaware seem to evoke the spirit of humanity unaffected by fate.

In several of his paintings, including Pastoral, The Old Nurse and the Acts of Mercy murals, one can see a growing-up girl looking directly at the viewer. The girl’s look is always somewhat elusive, neither smiling nor not smiling. It is not an innocent, placid look.

Pastoral by Frederick Cayley Robinson. Courtesy of

My response to that half-knowing glance is a hint of self-reflection and interiority,the vigilance towards the external society, a curiosity about the onlooking world.

Aside from the stare, his paintings tend to focus on the daily rituals of life with a strong emphasis on precision, diligence and manual labour: the meals, the grazing of the sheep, the sewing and mending of clothes.

The play on light in his works is unforgettable. Such tranquillity and hope conveyed in the ribbon of light that ripples on the purple waters in Pastoral. The warm glow of sunset also stayed on the girl’s hair, so transient and yet comforting.

In Acts of Mercy, the glow of the lamp in the dining hall creates a sense of harmony and at the same time meek resignation — perhaps to elucidate the orphans’ resignation to their allotted fate and the sense of fraternity. In The Old Nurse, one sees the window across the street lit from the inside, hinting at a story, or stories, of other people, other lives within such proximity. In other paintings, there is often the inclusion of a handheld lantern, a small but steady source of light.

More reference, please find out more from the curator Sarah Herring at BBC’s audio slideshow

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s