Francis Wells on Luke Fildes’s The Doctor 1891

Is caring for others innate, or can it be taught? Does modern day medicine attract those with compassion, or is it mainly a ‘soft science’; humanities by numbers? Does caring matter in the accountancy and dispensation of modern healthcare? In such a context I have long been moved by this painting. The study of emotion and caring expressed in the pose and the face of the doctor encapsulates all that is good in medicine. The face exposes a deeply thoughtful and analytical mind. The body language, with the head projected forwards and resting gently on the left hand, reveals one human being caring deeply for another: emotion and intellect entwined for the betterment of the child.

Commissioned by Sir Henry Tate in 1891, Fildes’s popular painting was inspired by the death of the artist’s son in 1877, and the professional devotion of Dr Gustav Murray who attended him. It was created half a century before the advent of competent antibiotics; a time when the natural immunity of the child was all that stood between life and death. The era of medicine represented in this wonderful picture had few proven remedies. The compassion of the doctor was centre stage.

In an earlier time still, the Jewish rabbi and physician Maimonides (1135–1204) wrote: ‘May I never see in the patient anything but a fellow creature in pain. May I never consider him merely a vessel of the disease.’ A generation after Fildes, the legendary physician Francis Peabody wrote: ‘One of the essential qualities of the clinician is interest in humanity, for the secret of the care of the patient is in caring for the patient.’ As modern medicine marches forward, the demands on the doctor continue to escalate. The doctor’s performance is measured numerically by our political masters. However, our patients, while demanding world-class therapies, deserve an approach summarised by the great French surgeon Alexis Carrel: ‘To cure sometimes, to relieve often, to comfort always.’

The Doctor was presented by Sir Henry Tate in 1894 and is on display at Tate Britain.

Alexa de Ferranti on William Hogarth’s The Painter and his Pug 1745

Never apologise, never explain, my mother always told me. Hogarth, by all accounts, didn’t go in for much of either. The Painter and his Pug encapsulates this piece of wisdom for me. Even though it pays lip service to the intellect with its bookish overtones (the pile of tomes by Shakespeare, Swift and Milton and the words on his palette – ‘The Line of Beauty and Grace’ – that refer to his eponymous treatise), that dog’s tongue disrupts everything. Depending which way takes your fancy, it deftly makes prudes or pervs of us all. Why keep your tongue in your cheek when you can have it hanging out? Make reference and we might be obscene (but have at least understood), ignore it and we are blinkered. If only dogs could paint – in Self-portrait with Painter, by Trump the dog, Hogarth’s own thin slab of flesh would be lolling. To me, it suggests the memory of little lies we’ve told, or spinach on a friend’s teeth, a nasty smell we’ve hurried to forget. By reminding us of the smallest, most moist blots, it speaks loudly of the biggest. It does everything except explain itself, and it certainly isn’t about to apologise.

The Painter and his Pug is on display at Tate Britain.

Desmond Morris on Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion c.1944

The face of the figure is distorted into a scream of horrific intensity. He painted many screams in later works, but none can match the impact of this one. It is the scream of the torture victim at the very moment that the lash cuts the flesh. The victim, of course, is Bacon himself. He was heavily into bondage and masochistic ritual in his private life, and he relived his painful eroticism in many of his images of trussed up, agonised, distorted figures.

Francis was fascinated by extreme forms of facial expression, and the mouth stretched open to full gape was his favourite. One day he amused me by saying, in an apologetic tone: ‘You know, I think I’ve got the scream, but I am having terrible trouble with the smile.’ The truth was that he could get no kicks from an image of a smiling face. It was not part of his complex sexual obsession.

Others may see in this screaming face a reflection of the agonies of war-torn Europe, a statement about the horrors of modern existence, or the entrapment and isolation of modern man in his urban cell. I see nothing of the sort. I see a devout masochist enjoying the thrill of encapsulating the secret joys of his most private moments. The great mystery about Bacon’s work is why this lifelong fetishistic indulgence should have resulted in the creation of such truly great art. But then mystery is the very essence of art. As Picasso once said: ‘I don’t understand it and if I did, I wouldn’t tell you.’

Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion was presented to Tate by Eric Hall in 1953.

Dan Hays on Joseph Wright of Derby’s Vesuvius in Eruption, with a View over the Islands in the Bay of Naples c.1776–80

I was obsessed with painting volcanoes as a young child. Maybe it was the simplicity of their form: a cone spewing out liquid fire and smoke.I must have unconsciously seen them as emblems of creativity rather than destruction, reflecting my infant need for self-expression to make a mark on the world. I didn’t speak until I was four, when the volcano phase passed, or became dormant.

Joseph Wright drew and painted Vesuvius many times, depicting it here in violent eruption, with magma exploding into the air as globules of yellow paint and relentlessly flowing down towards the sea, fingers of molten rock reaching for the silhouetted buildings of Naples. Wright’s most famous works are interiors involving the dramatic effects of artificial and nocturnal light. With Vesuvius he found a colossal example of his favourite subject. The fluid iridescence of lava is an equivalent to paint: mysterious and dangerous stuff. Indeed, the rivulets of lava running down the cone are painted with real sulphur, so that the portrayal is a bit more than just illusory. Plumes of smoke drift towards the top right, their choking blackness illuminated by the fire of Vesuvius, a diabolic version of a heavenly vista. Through a cosmic pictorial interplay the sublime is framed and tamed. In the shadowy foreground a victim of the eruption is carried away as we are drawn further into the spectacle from the safe distance that representation affords. This is the real terrifying subject of this magical painting.

Vesuvius in Eruption was purchased with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, National Art Collections Fund, Friends of the Tate Gallery and Mr John Ritblat in 1990.

Jim Drain on Sonia Delaunay’s Triptych 1963

I see owls in this painting. Their eyes stare blankly at you from deep within a dark forest. I imagine the painting hung in a library that is stacked with encyclopedias and first editions: Animal Farm, a dog-earred Joyce, 1984, some Gertrude Stein, Before I Lay Dying, Wolfe, Yeats – serious books; travel books in another corner: visit Prague, Ireland and the Redwoods. The painting looks important. If it spoke it would say, ‘koo-koo’ the way Frank Sinatra would say it. Or it would say ‘hoot’ or ‘leave me alone I am hiding in these esoteric, dark woods and I am chewing on stew goo.’ It’s heavy and there is a gin with an olive in there. It feels indulgent, wasted and meditative.

There is something magical that happens in this painting. It is hard to name. It is clunky with an easy, sophisticated rawness. There are traces of a symbolist longing, an agrarian chagrin and a touch of the ‘simple, good ol’ days’ thing mixed in there. It lets you zone-out as the visual planes take position: colors recede while other shapes advance. It is guarded and tentative dance – one that slowly builds a delicate fortress where once was a flat picture plane.

There is a riddle locked away in this painting. It is the reason I am drawn to Delaunay’s work. They seem to invoke an unnameable architecture. They make me wish for a Delaunay world with Delaunay dreams, Delaunay buildings, Delaunay kindergartens. They sing a haunted gypsy-campfire song that sounds deadly, dark, beautiful and alive – one that stops me in my tracks. One that won’t let go of me.

Triptych was purchased by Tate in 1966.