Crucifixion, began the romance. Fifty years ago, Dr Cicely
Saunders spotted it in the window of the Drian Gallery, in
Bayswater, London, while driving past, and felt magnetically drawn
to the painting. She parked her car and entered the gallery, just
as its owners were about to close on what was the final day of the
The founder of the modern
hospice movement, Dame Cicely (as she was to become) was in the
process of setting up St Christopher's Hospice, in south-east
London. What she achieved there is a matter of record. What is less
known is the part that art, and one artist in particular, played in
The exhibition that Dame
Cicely spotted, in 1963, was by the Polish émigré artist Marian
Bohusz-Szyszko. Entranced by his work, she went from painting to
painting, and - despite never having bought a painting before -
emerged with Bohusz-Szyszko's Christ Calming the
What attracted her to his
work was its resonance with what she planned to do at St
Christopher's. In a letter to the artist the very next day, she
wrote: "The message of your picture is so fundamental to what we
are going to try and do, that I am certain that it was no mere
chance that made me attracted by your pictures, and drew me to the
gallery, the last evening before it closed."
What happened then was,
eventually, to lead to a love not just of Bohusz-Szyszko's work,
but of the man himself. He was profoundly moved by her letter,
describing it "as the most important moment in all my artistic
career", because "nothing is more important for the artist than
feeling that he might be necessary for his brethren and serve them
by his art."
He replied to her by
offering an additional painting as a gift for the new chapel at St
Christopher's. They met just before Christmas 1963, and they began
a relationship that lasted until his death, at the hospice, in
artist in residence at the hospice after it opened, with a studio
on what is now Rugby Ward. Eventually, up to 80 of his paintings
would be hung in the hospice. As he had a long-estranged wife in
Poland (whom, as a devout Roman Catholic, he would not divorce, and
continued to support), he, Dame Cicely, and another couple bought a
house in Sydenham in 1969, which they shared, calling it their
died in 1975, and the couple married five years later. For both of
them, these years of late marriage were among the happiest of their
lives. In 1998, after her husband's death, Dame Cicely made her
first, and only trip to his native country. In the church in
Bystrzyca (now Belarus) where Bohusz-Szyszko was baptised, she left
a stone from his grave to symbolise his return home.
When they first met,
Bohusz-Szyszko was an artist with an international reputation, who
had mounted one-man exhibitions in Rome, Florence, Paris, Munich,
and Hamburg. He was also the Principal of the Polish School of Art
in London, supporting artists among the Polish diaspora
A former student, Halima
Nałęc, went on to found the Drian Galleries, which became an outlet
for the work of Polish artists, among others. Bohusz-Szyszko was
also a driving force in the Association of Polish Artists in Great
Britain, eventually being made the Honorary Chairman for life.
ROM the beginning of his
career, Bohusz-Szyszko was a religious artist. Professor Tadeusz
Pruszkowski said, in a 1939 review of Bohusz-Szyszko's first
one-man exhibition, that he had "not set himself an easy task in
introducing into the tradition of religious art the achievements of
the modern approach to colour".
Lord Alistair Gordon
wrote of the Drian Gallery exhibition, which had attracted Dame
Cicely's attention, that Bohusz-Szyszko's "religious work has an
ecstatic vision that is all joy and hope". He pointed out that
Bohusz-Szyszko had been imprisoned by the Germans from 1939 to
1945, and said that to paint as he did showed the "measure of the
man" - someone who had "seen a lot more of the Guernica
side of life than most people".
Bohusz-Szyszko built up
his expressionist-style paintings through a time-consuming process
of painting, and over-painting, using bold, singing colours that
enabled his figures to be illuminated from the paint structure
itself rather than an external source of light. Professor Kenneth
Coutts-Smith, writing in the journal Art & Artists,
described Bohusz-Szyszko's synthesis of order and emotion, gesture
and structure, as a "tentative approach toward a condition of
Dame Cicely recalled that
it "was not chance that brought me to the Drian Gallery at the end
of Marian Bohusz-Szyszko's 1963 exhibition, and began the
co-operation and the series of special gifts that have filled the
Hospice with vibrant colour". Instead, as Douglas Hall, the first
Keeper of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and author of
Art in Exile: Polish painters in post-war Britain, has
explained, the "Hospice, open to all but conducted with the ideal
in mind of a contemplative and spiritual Christianity, provided a
focus for Bohusz-Szyszko's own inclinations".
ST CHRISTOPHER's Hospice
is committed to "total care". The vision is of a world in which all
dying people, and those close to them, have access to appropriate
care and support when they need it, wherever they need it, and
whoever they are.
Dame Cicely introduced
the idea of "total pain", which included the physical, emotional,
social, and spiritual dimensions of distress. She re- garded each
person, whether patient or staff, as an individual to the end.
Bohusz-Szyszko's paintings as an integral part of this medical
programme - in particular, for the alleviation of social and
spiritual pain. Hall has suggested that the paintings formed "a
continuum of interest throughout the building, in which patients,
their visitors, and the staff are all enveloped".
Dame Cicely wrote that
the "pictures speak of beliefs challenged and confirmed in today's
world, and have a continual impact on all who work and are cared
for in the Hospice, and its thousands of visitors from all over the
The integration of the
arts into a "total care" concept began - because of their personal
relationship - on an idiosyncratic basis. These days, the
integration continues, but on a more professional footing. Artists
and art therapists run daily groups.
There is also a
long-standing schools project, and an annual art partnership with
the Royal Academy of Art. These involve capturing the views of
dying people, and those who care for them, using various artistic
media, including photography, quilt- making, painting, drawing,
creative writing, and music-making.
The Director of
Supportive Care at St Christopher's, Nigel Hartley, has written
that "artists can bring a motivational energy and a positive
experience both to patients who use a palliative care service, and
also to the service itself. Through offering patients a new
experience of themselves, at a time when they are dying, artists
have the skill to change the nature of people's illness
introducing art and providing live music within the everyday fabric
of the organisation, they can have a dynamic effect on the working
environment in the palliative care service."
HE combined effect of
Bohusz-Szyszko's 80 works at St Christopher's, when they were all
in place, must have been overwhelming. Today, the number of
paintings displayed has been reduced, and works are seen primarily
on the north stairwell, in the Dame Cicely Saunders Room, and in
the Education Centre.
Among the paintings on
display are Triptych (1967), White Dove (1972),
St Christopher (1970), and two portraits of Dame Cicely.
"In recent years, St Christopher's has initiated a large arts
programme, where patients and families, together with local
community groups, work in partnerships to create art exhibitions,"
Mr Hartley says. "Much of the work created as part of this project
is now exhibited in the hospice public areas, as part of a rolling
Since his death,
Bohusz-Szyszko has dropped out of public recognition. None the
less, he remains a significant figure for Polish artists in the UK.
His contribution - and, more widely, that of exiled Polish artists
- to sacred art and commissioned church art in the UK would benefit
from reassessment. Bohusz-Szyszko and other exiled Polish artists
(such as Stanislaw Frenkiel, Adam Kossowski, Henryk Gotlib, Marek
Zulawski, and Aleksander Zyw) were part of a consistent but
under-recognised strand of artists' employing sacred themes which
runs throughout the 20th century in the UK.
achievement was the body of work at St Christopher's Hospice, but
his work was also displayed at St John's, Hyde Park Crescent,
London, during the incumbency of the Revd Cuthbert Scott.
His work was also
championed and purchased by the Rt Revd John V. Taylor, while
Bishop of Winchester, and, earlier, General Secretary to the Church
Missionary Society. Bohusz-Szyszko's work formed part of the
revival in church commissions in the UK, which began through the
work of Bishop Bell and Dean Hussey, and which continues to the
Bishop Taylor described
Bohusz-Szyszko as "a profoundly spiritual painter . . . a supreme
colourist", and a mystic whose paintings "are, in a sense, icons",
which "call for contemplation". Noting the tactile pleasure in
which Bohusz-Szyszko applied paint to canvas, Taylor said that his
"is the art of a materialist who understands the divinity of matter
in the manner of a mystic".
In his teaching
Bohusz-Szyszko distinguished "vision" from "painting". "Painting
vision," he said, "can be found exceptionally with these artists
who found the means of artistic expression in themselves, as inner
necessity, and not just through skilful use of the brush."
He was speaking from
personal experience. His vision was that each crucifixion
foreshadows resurrection - a truth that both he and Dame Cicely
believed, and experienced for themselves as romance blossomed from
that first glimpse of the Blue Crucifixion.
In her Templeton Prize
speech, in 1981, Dame Cicely said: "God uses the losses of our
lives and of our deaths to give us himself; he travels with us
through our pains and sorrows. These are all filled with his
redeeming strength, because he has suffered and died himself, and
did so with no more than the equipment of a man. And he rose
"This is the message of
the symbols that enlighten the hospice, the glowing pictures of
Marian Bohusz-Szyszko, saying without words that the resurrection
and new life can be true for us all."