Wellcome Trust Acquires Picasso's Only Mural Made In England

By Caroline Lewis | 02 April 2007
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photo of a panel with a faint drawing on it of a man and a woman with wings

Bernal's Picasso, chiselled out of the wall to be saved for posterity. Courtesy the Wellcome Trust

When the World Peace Congress planned for Sheffield in November 1950 never took place, Picasso and a number of other activists were stranded in London. A well-known scientist and peace activist threw a party for the disappointed delegates, where the artist made a drawing on the wall.

The Wellcome Trust has now acquired the drawing - the only mural produced in England by Picasso - for £250,000. The medical research charity, which is opening its new £30m Euston venue in June 2007, bought the mural from London’s Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA).

Known as Bernal’s Picasso, the mural will go on display in the Wellcome Collection, a new venue in London that will explore the connections between medicine, life and art.

Clare Matterson, Director of Medicine, Society and History at the Wellcome Trust announced the Collection’s opening date, June 21 2007, at the same time as the purchase.

“The mural’s history sparked our interest here at the Wellcome Collection,” she said, “as it marks a particular and harmonious moment in the relationship between an artist and scientist.”

Bernal’s Picasso is named after Professor John Desmond Bernal, who threw the party at his Torrington Square flat for the stranded peace delegates. Bernal was an eminent Irish scientist who worked on x-ray crystallography and took the first x-ray photographs of protein crystals, but was equally famous for his political beliefs.

a drawing in the style of Picasso of a man and a woman with laurel wreaths on their heads and wings

A copy made of the mural by Picasso biographer Andrew Brown. © the artist

Bernal joined the Communist Party while a lecturer at Cambridge University in the 1930s, and served as the president of the Cambridge Scientists’ Anti-War Group - a forerunner of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

While Bernal’s activism did not endear him to the authorities, he was invited by the government to become a scientific advisor during the Second World War, and was involved in studies of Normandy beaches in preparation for the D-Day landings.

Bernal remained a pacifist at heart, leading to his meeting Picasso when the World Peace Congress failed to take place. After a few drinks at the party, the scientist asked Picasso to draw on his sitting room wall. Picasso stood on a chair and made outlines of two figures, adding laurel wreaths and wings to give them a peace theme.

Bernal chiselled out the mural and presented it to the ICA in 1969, when the Bloomsbury flat was due to be demolished. After being on public display for some years, it was loaned to the Clore Management Centre at Birkbeck College. However, both the Bernal family and the ICA want the mural to be in the public domain, yet the ICA has no space for permanent collections.

“The story between two great figures in the world of arts and science, which lies behind the mural’s creation, is a fascinating one that strikingly resonates with one of the major themes of the Wellcome Collection,” said Ken Arnold, Head of Public Programmes for the Wellcome Trust, “to deepen our understanding of the relationships between medicine, life and art.”

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