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Watch your step

 Janan Nuri 3 Sep 2018 Library

One of the highlights of having a tour at the Royal College of Nursing is seeing the painted staircase, but what’s the story behind it? Janan Nuri tells us more...

Staircase at 20 Cavendish Square
Our staircase here at RCN headquarters is quite theatrical, and I sometimes expect an opera singer to emerge at the top of the stairs. There’s a bit of ancient Greek mythology to the mural, there’s the Italian Baroque style, it’s a mish mash of different things, and I think that’s why I love this staircase so much. But why is it here?

Well, the RCN’s headquarters is built on what was the site of four buildings on the corner of Cavendish Square. The oldest part of the building, where our main entrance is on the square, was originally a townhouse completed in 1729, built by George Greaves. So the grandiose staircase was part of this old house, there to show off the wealth of the homeowner. 

The staircase was painted by John Devoto, a student of Sir James Thornhill. Thornhill was famous for painting in the Italian Baroque tradition. He painted the inside of the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, along with the Painted Hall at the Royal Hospital in Greenwich, so Devoto learned from one of the best. Devoto was a scene painter, along with staircases he also painted the background scenery of theatre shows in London. 

An interesting feature is above the chandelier, the ceiling is painted in a tromp l’oeil effect, making it look like there is a dome when in fact the ceiling is flat. I point this out to guests on my tours as the best angle to view the ‘dome’ from is at the bottom of the stairs coming up, but I tell them to hold on tight (and that’s not just for health and safety reasons). 

This staircase was the site of an unfortunate tragedy in 1881. The house during that time was owned by the Barrington family. Lady Jane Barrington, when walking down the stairs one evening, tripped on the fifth step down and fell to her death. 

Lord Barrington was so distraught over his wife’s death, that a silver cross was inlaid into the step to mark the place she had fallen from. This cross is mentioned in several books about the history of Cavendish Square. Regrettably the cross had to be removed in the end as the stone around it wore away and it was, ironically, tripping people up. Instead there is simply an ominous black rectangle in the step to mark the place that Lady Barrington fell from.  

There are various rumours across different RCN departments about a ghost (nicknamed the ‘Grey Lady’) who over the years has been seen throughout the building. Suffice to say it is a little unnerving when you’re sitting downstairs in the library towards closing time when most members have left, when all of a sudden in the darkness, the lift comes down of its own accord without anyone having called it, or anyone inside of it… Perhaps the Grey Lady prefers lifts considering her history. 

The Royal College of Nursing is taking part in Open House London again this year, so come along for a free tour on the 21 September 2019 to see the staircase for yourself and to find out more on the history of our building. There's no need to book, though please expect short queues during busy periods. Tours take 30 minutes and will run from 10am until 4.30pm. Alternatively you can book tours on this page


RCN Library staff

Janan Nuri

Author of this guide

RCN Library and Archive Services

Page last updated - 27/06/2019