The collection of the Royal College of General Practitioners consists mainly of portraits of its former presidents, however it also features several unusual works of art. Here, the College's Archivist explains the context of the acquisitions.
The art collective Pharmacopoeia makes art to engage viewers in the debate around our relationship with medical treatments, encouraging us to examine our own medical and pharmacological history. They explore the tension between the dependence of our society on pharmaceuticals and the ambivalence we often feel towards them.
Textile artist Susie Freeman and family doctor Liz Lee began to work together in 1998 and in that year won a Wellcome Trust Sciart Award. Over the next 20 years, they created an internationally exhibited body of work including commissioned site-specific installations, such as Cradle to Grave with artist David Critchley for the British Museum and Femme Vitale for Copenhagen Medical Museum.
In 2010, when the Royal College of General Practitioners moved into 30 Euston Square, the Royal College of General Practitioners purchased two pieces from Pharmacopoeia: Jubilee and Armour, which are are on permanent display in 30 Euston Square. In 2018–2019 the College hosted a retrospective exhibition called 'WOWI – What Once Was Imagined' containing over 30 pieces of the collective's work.
The artwork Armour is made of 80 denier nylon monofilament, similar to fishing line, which is knitted on a hand-operated industrial knitting machine. Enclosed in rows of tiny mesh pockets are empty pill packet bubbles. This flexible cloth is formed into a layered T-shaped top over wide trousers and an additional breastplate section made of flattened pill pack sheets. There are just over 16,000 individual pill cases.
Armour is based on the prescribing record of Liz Lee's patient Mr Brittain. By the age of 77, he had smoked for 50 years, suffered two heart attacks and was being treated for hypertension, cardiac failure, COPD, arthritis, indigestion, depression and insomnia.
Jubilee was created in 1999 for the Pharmacopoeia exhibition 'Sexwise' at Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery and purchased by the Royal College of General Practitioners in 2010. The wedding-style dress is made of fine nylon monofilament, similar to fishing line, and knitted on a Dubied industrial knitting machine. Enclosed in rows of tiny mesh pockets are 6,279 contraceptive pills.
Allowing for a couple of breaks to have children, the packets represented would provide contraception for a woman from the age of 22 to 50 years old. It is titled Jubilee as a celebration of her silver wedding anniversary.
Dr Sharon Messenger, Archivist at the Royal College of General Practitioners