It was almost 30 years ago, in 1992, that Damien Hirst’s famous Pharmacy appeared at the Cohen Gallery in New York, later being transformed into a restaurant of the same name in Notting Hill Gate in London, the son of which continues within Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery today. At the time, Hirst was investigating the relationship between art and life and the power that drug companies and health professionals have due to our unquestioning belief in drugs that are prescribed or bought at the chemist, despite the occasional high profile disaster. In 1915/16, the NHS alone spent over £16 billion on drugs and the figure continues to rise. Hirst also intended Pharmacy to be a reflection of its time, that would become a museum piece in decades to come, just as those fascinating old apothecaries and pharmacies with their rows of painted glass jars on timber shelves have become today.
Taking Hirst’s concept to another level is the fascinating collaboration between GP Liz Lee and textile artist Susie Freeman, linking art, fashion and medicine at ‘What Once was Imagined’ (WOWi), 31 artworks installed throughout the public areas of the recently-transformed Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) at 30 Euston Road. Liz Lee and Suzie Freeman have been working together since 1998 on their collaboration ‘Pharmacopoeia’ and are perhaps best known for their installation ‘From Cradle to Grave’ in the British Museum which embedded within two long strips of fabric the vast number of prescription pills that someone in the UK would be likely to take in their lifetime. Their work also demonstrates the strong force for good which art can have in medical treatment. Linking back to this work and to Hirst’s Pharmacy, Professor Mayur Lakhani in the catalogue introduction raises one of the new challenges for doctors being the prescription of too many pills, plus there are concerns about how to safely wean patients off reliance on, and addiction to, certain classes of pills.
30 Euston Square, next to what is gradually becoming a major redevelopment site at Euston Station, in anticipation of HS2, was built by the architect Arthur Beresford Pite in 1906-8 for the London, Edinburgh and Glasgow Assurance Company, being later extended in 1932 by the W. H. Gunton. Having had a chequered life, including at one time being an office of the Department of Health and Society Security, it has, since 2012, been the headquarters of the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) following a splendid refurbishment by HarmsenTilneyShane who restored the essence of the historic Edwardian interiors, while creating two full-height atria in former light wells and creating modern 21st century working environments and public spaces which, when I visited, were buzzing with life and activity. Its location is excellent for members travelling to London from all over the country with, a stone’s throw away, across the busy Euston Road, from the Wellcome Trust and Collection.
The RCGP is a relatively young professional medical association, having only been founded in 1952, and today is a future-thinking body of 52.000 members supporting the highest standards in general medical practice. With the RCGP having moved from its old building in Princes Gate, Kensington for a more modern environment at 30 Euston Square, and the Royal College of Pathologists recently having moved from its early 19th century home in Carlton House Terrace to a new building designed by Bennetts Associates near Aldgate in the East End of London, and the Institute of Physics having moved from Portland Place to a new building at King’s Cross in 2018, does this suggest a trend for professional organisations to equip themselves with new modern facilities for the 21st century and, in the process open up their buildings with new public events and activities such as this excellent exhibition?