Pioneering World War II plastic surgery drawings to be exhibited for the first time

Press release- 11 November 2008

On 18 November 2008, an exhibition at the Camberwell Art College opens showcasing 2,500 recently uncovered drawings of artist Dickie Orpen. Orpen uniquely used her talent in art and passion for medicine in creating pencil drawings that recorded complex operations and pioneering techniques that helped change the face of plastic surgery. 

During the Second World War both civilian and military personnel with horrific injuries were treated using plastic and reconstructive surgery at Hill End Hospital St Albans.  A pioneering plastic surgeon, Rainsford Mowlem headed the team that conducted ground-breaking surgery to rectify injuries sustained in combat. 

The drawings making up the exhibition “Dickie Orpen, Surgeon’s Artist” were only recently discovered in archived records when the plastic surgery unit at Mount Vernon Hospital was closed last year. The rest were given to the BAPRAS Archive by the Plastic Surgeon Mr Magdy Saad who received them from the estate of Mr John Barron who worked with Mowlem at Hill End St Albans during the war.  

The exhibition is a joint initiative by Camberwell College of Art and the British Association of Plastic, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeons (BAPRAS).  The collection of the drawings and the exhibition has been organised by BAPRAS Archivist and retired plastic surgeon Brian Morgan and Jeanne Woodcraft, lecturer in drawing at Camberwell. 

Between 18 and 28 November, the exhibition will be housed at Camberwell College of Art, Wilson Road, SE5 8LU.  The exhibition will be open to the public between 10am to 4pm on weekdays.   The drawings will then be exhibited at the Royal College of Surgeons at Lincoln Inn’s Fields, WC2A 3PE, from 3 December 2008. 


About the artist, Dickie Orpen
Dickie Orpen was the daughter of Sir William Orpen, a famous artist in the early 20th century. She was born in 1914. At the age of 14 she began studying at the Slade, under the direct influence of Professor Tonks who had recorded Harold Gillies reconstructive work in WW1. She also attended The Byam Shaw School. 

In 1942 she gave up nursing and wrote to Sir Harold asking if she could help the war effort with her drawing. Her letter was passed to Rainsford Mowlem and she started work at the Plastic and Maxillo-Facial Unit at Hill End Hospital in St Albans. She spent the rest of the war in the operating theatre producing 2500 pencil and pen drawings showing in great detail the surgery that was being performed. 

After the war she married Jack Olivier and had three children. Jack was in the Civil Service overseas, and they lived together in Nyasaland (now Malawi) where for a while Jack was the Provincial Commissioner. They returned to England with their three children in 1954. Subsequently Dickie ran an art group and taught in schools. In the 1960s she also voluntarily taught painting and drawing at Silverwood, a centre for people with polio in Surrey. 

In the 1970s Dickie was involved again with illustrating reconstructive surgery when John Barron and Magdy Saad wrote 'Operative Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery'.

BAPRAS, the British Association of Plastic, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgery, is the voice of plastic surgery in the UK. It aims to increase the understanding of the professional specialty and scope of plastic surgery, promoting innovation in teaching, learning and research.

Founded in 1946 (originally as the British Association of Plastic Surgeons), today BAPRAS has over 800 members and is the professional representative body for reconstructive and aesthetic plastic surgeons providing services to patients on the NHS and privately in the UK.

Members of the public can find a member plastic surgeon in their area by logging on to Anyone can check the GMC to find out if a surgeon is on the plastic surgery specialist register.