Florence Nightingale


from letters and diaries
This lecture deals with aspects of Nightingale’s life and mind before, during and after the Crimean war.
With paintings, sketches and portraits from the Nightingale Museum, at St. Thomas’ Hospital, London by artists including
Julia Smith (aunt)
Parthenope, Lady Verney (sister)
Hilary Bonham-Carter ( cousin)
Selina Bracebridge (friend)
“without whom Scutari and my life would not have been”
Jerry Barrett, war artist of the Crimea
The Crimean War occupied 2 years of Florence Nightingale’s long life (1820-1910). Much of the rest of it was taken up in writing. “I could have been a married woman, a hospital sister or a literary woman”.Much of her later life was spent in bed writing vividly on tough topics – sanitation, nursing reform, the health of the British army, hospital construction, the nature of God. She also writes vividly on Florence Nightingale.In youth Nightingale had to fight her mother and sister in order to get her own way. She says of her family “We are a great many strong characters, all pulling different ways. Oh, how much good it does us to have someone to laugh at us!”

As a young woman Nightingale visited Florence, her birthplace. There and in Rome she set eyes on paintings which would influence her for the rest of her life. “I always believe in the old Italian pictures where the Unseen live on the first floor, and a ground floor where poor mortals live, but still have a connection with the establishment upstairs… I believe in a multitude of spirits inhabiting the same house with ourselves… we are like the blind man on the wayside and ought to sit and cry “Lord! that we may receive our sight!”

In letters she refers, with profound feeling, to works by Durer, Corregio and Michaelangelo. Later in her bedroom in South Street, London she would hang prints from the Sistine Ceiling. With typical bite, (and inconsistency, according to her mother) she would also say

“There is nothing I hate more than a museum!”

Nightingale had a great love of philosophical speculation. Her great friend Benjamin Jowett, classicist and master of Balliol College Oxford, would complain “I have heard you mention the nature of God over 10,000 times, but I still have no clear idea what you mean!”

The two keep up a lively correspondence, discussing George Eliot and Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. She writes “I don’t know if Hamlet was mad, but he would certainly have driven me mad!”

Jowett calls her “Florence the First, Empress of Scavengers, Queen of Nurses, Reverend Mother Superior of the British Army, Governess of the Governor of India.” She replies “Maid of all dirty work rather, or, the Nuisances Removal Act, that’s me.”

A great cat-lover, Nightingale managed to link them with philosophy. “I learned the lesson of life from a little kitten, one of two. The old cat comes in and says “What are you doing here, I want my missus to myself.” The bigger kitten runs away. The little one stands her ground, and when the old enemy comes near, kisses his nose and makes the peace. That is the lesson of life: kiss your enemy’s nose while standing your ground.”

This lecture has been presented to numerous branches of NADFAS (National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies) at the National Army Museum, London and at the National Portrait Gallery, London. Future bookings include the Mole Valley Festival on September 8th 2007.


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please contact: Karin Fernald directly from this page