The painting is a sketch for the much larger and more finished work that was sold in these Rooms on 5 March 1993, lot 107. The pendant, Queen Victoria's First Visit to her Wounded Soldiers, was lot 108. The two monumental canvases, which are of great historical interest and were well known in their day through the medium of engravings, were bought at the sale for the National Portrait Gallery.
The underlying theme of both paintings is the Crimean War, the most foolhardy and traumatic military adventure of the Victorian age. Queen Victoria's First Visit to her Wounded Soldiers is the less iconic of the two images, and it might therefore be assumed that it was conceived as a comparison-piece to the pre-existing Mission of Mercy. But in fact it was painted first. It represents a visit paid by the Queen, Prince Albert and their two eldest sons to the Brompton Hospital, Chatham, on 3 March 1855, to see some of the disabled troops that had returned from the conflict. Jerry Barrett, a young London-based artist, not well known but evidently ambitious, witnessed the event and made sketches on the spot. The painting was completed by the summer of 1856, when it was exhibited to great acclaim by Agnew's at their premises in Manchester and London. The firm also commissioned a mezzotint from Thomas Oldham Barlow, publishing it in November 1858 with a dedication to the Queen.
Hardly had Barrett completed Queen Victoria's First Visit that he set out for the Crimea to gather material for The Mission of Mercy. The picture was to be on the same scale and to show Florence Nightingale in the Barrack Hospital at Scutari, the scene of her heroic endeavours to improve the medical treatment of the British army engaged in the war. She had gone out in October 1854, charged by the government with superintending the nursing hospital, which had been condemned as scandalously inadequate by William Howard Russell in his first-hand reports in the Times. Conditions were so appalling that they were killing solders faster than the war itself. The most rudimentary medical supplies were lacking, while the military authorities were slaves to beaurocracy if not actively obstructive.
His expenses paid by Agnew's, Barrett arrived at Scutari in June 1856, establishing a makeshift studio in the hospital itself. The setting of his picture is the building's quadrangle. On the right is the great gateway over which Miss Nightingale said the words 'Abandon hope all ye who enter here', the inscription above the entrace to Hell in Dante's Inferno, should have been written; and in the distance can be seen the Bosphorus, with the gardens of the Seraglio on the near side and Constantinople glittering in the sunlight beyond. Casualties are being helped up the steep slope which led from the rickety landing-stage to the hospital, while around Miss Nightingale are gathered many of those who were associated with her work in the Crimea. They include her close friends Charles and Selina Bracebridge of Atherstone Hall, near Coventry, who had accompanied her to Scutari in 1854 and for nine months acted as her lieutenants; Major Sillery, the ineffectual commandant of the hospital when she arrived; his even more useless successor, Lord William Paulet; and his successor, General Sir Henry Storks, under whom reforms were finally introduced.
Two senior medical officers, Dr William Linton and Dr Cruikshanks, are also present, while Mrs Roberts, Miss Nightingale's most efficient nurse, albeit an irritating chatterbox, kneels beside the solder on a stretcher at the centre of the whole group. Also present are Revd Mother Mary Clare, the superior of the five Bermondsey nuns who joined the mission; Alexis Soyer, the French chef at the Reform Club in London who revolutionised the hospital's cooking; and the boy Robert Robinson, an invalided drummer from the 68th Light Infantry, who appointed himself Miss Nightingale's personal servant and took charge of the famous lamp which she carried with her when she toured the wards at night. Several Turks, including a Bashi-Bazouk, two yashmaked women and a child, complete the group, and the artist shows himself looking through a heavily-barred window in the far wall.
Barrett's object in this painting was not to illustrate a specific incident, as he had in Queen Victoria's First Visit to her Wounded Soldiers, but to create an image that would sum up and symbolise Miss Nightingale's 'mission of mercy'. Despite what the Athenaeum called its 'air of truthfulness', the picture is a highly artificial construct. The dramatis personae could not all have been present at the same time. There are deliberate echoes of one of Raphael's cartoons, Peter and John healing the Lame Man at the Gate of the Temple, and Mrs Roberts's gesture of offering the wounded man a cup gives the scene an almost sacramental quality. The presence of the Turks, gazing in amazement at the ongoing ritual, reinforces this impression.
Barrett did not being work on the full-scale painting until he returned to London. It is indistinctly dated but was presumably finished by August 1857, when it was bought by Agnew's for £450, including copyright. Two oil sketches survive, the present painting and another, of exactly the same size (16 x 24 in.), in the National Portrait Gallery (for the latter, see G. Reynolds, Victorian Painting, revised ed., London, 1987, p. 101, pl. 65). Ours is clearly the later since it is closer compositionally to the finished work, although there are still significant variations of detail.
Barrett also painted a 'reduced copy' of the completed work, possibly for the engraver Thomas Oldham Barlow, who engraved the picture in mezzotint, as he did Queen Victoria's First Visit. In fact the reproduction of The Misson of Mercy appeared first, being published on 21 April 1858 in an edition of 1,025 impressions. The 'reduced copy' was completed as early as July 1857 (presumably giving us a terminus post quem for both sketches), and was with the Fine Art Society, London, in 1984 (see their catalogue Spring '84, no. 2, illustrated).