Museum Poetry: Florence Nightingale Bust

Several times this week, I’ve overheard visitors mention that Florence doesn’t look very happy.  This is in reference to the Florence Nightingale bust in the reception area of the museum and it’s true, she isn’t smiling.  The bust is by Sir John Steell and according to the NPG archive website, there are 11 known versions in marble and bronze.  It seems that Florence Nightingale only agreed to sit for this portrait because it was commissioned by the British Army and paid for by the soldiers.  Mark Bostridge in his biography of Florence Nightingale wrote, ‘she had a principle of objection to having her likeness taken annotating her Bible, against Ecclesiastes, chapter 12, verse 8 with the words, ‘and the vanity of vanities – the idolatry of our fellow mortals’.

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One of my heroines is the artist Kathe Kollwitz (1867-1945).  From the age of 18 to a couple of years before her death, she drew herself over 100 times.  I visited the Kathe Kollwitz Museum in Berlin several years ago.  Her work is naturalistic and centred on women and working class.  She was an activist and her work powerfully captured universal human experience.

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One room was dedicated to her self-portraits, as I walked around her face aged in front of me.  She didn’t look very happy either.


To see her face was exciting, amazing and inspiring.  When Sir John Steell’s Florence Nightingale bust was shown in public, it was greeted with ‘tears of gratitude’.  In the museum, nurses from all over the world rush to have their picture taken next to the Florence Nightingale bust, greeting it still with ‘tears of gratitude’.


Florence your profile, may not have a smile

And you must bridle at the thought of being an idol

But your face and shoulders are very tactile,

Were you alive, all those touch’s would be too-much’s

But nurses from all over the universes

Rush with joyous attitudes and tears of gratitude

To stand by your side.

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