A WOMAN SITS hunched in a bath, exhausted, crying into her hands. A man in blue scrubs and a face-mask presses the palm of his hand against a window; on the other side of the glass, two young girls and a boy raise their hands to meet his. A hospital sister sits up tall, radiating competence and calm.
These three images (pictured, above) capture the personal toll of working on Britain’s hospital wards during the coronavirus outbreak, as well as the dedication that has kept the National Health Service (NHS) functioning during the worst medical emergency of recent times. They are among the thousands of paintings created as part of Portraits for NHS Heroes, a remarkable new initiative whereby artists create artworks for NHS staff and frontline workers.
The first painting is of Georgina Keoh, a doctor working in acute care at St George’s Hospital in London. As well as working under extreme pressure during the early days of the crisis, she was obliged to self-isolate. In the evenings, in a hot bath, she could let the emotions of the day flow out and perhaps find some solace. “I just cried when I got her images,” says Jane Clatworthy, the artist who painted Dr Keoh’s portrait from photographs. “They were so vulnerable, and showed the human beneath the hero label.”
The second painting is of Muhammad Salman, a registrar on the covid-19 team in a hospital in Durham. He also had to self-isolate from his family, as his youngest child has asthma. Two of his colleagues had already fallen gravely ill with the virus and it looked as if they might die; Dr Salman feared that he could be next. This painting, by Nick Richards, was intended to bear witness. If he died, Dr Salman recalls, he wanted his children to grow up with a memory of him in his scrubs, doing his best to meet the crisis head-on.
The third portrait, by Alastair Adams, is of Deborah Garlock, who works on a covid-19 ward in Macclesfield. Both her brother and sister died last year; when the pandemic struck, she understood that “our resilience is being tested”. Even though she has been a nurse for her whole adult life, at times she was overwhelmed with sadness while helping coronavirus patients. But “putting the uniform on is like putting your armour on,” she says. Her friends say she looks powerful.
Portraits for NHS Heroes was set up by Tom Croft in early April. “Pushing paint around on a canvas seemed irrelevant besides the enormity of the coronavirus crisis,” he says; but he set aside his usual commissions and posted an offer on Instagram to paint the portrait of any frontline worker as a gift. The response was enthusiastic: he received 500 requests in the first week. Mr Croft encouraged other artists to join in, and since then an estimated 5,000 subjects have been matched with portraitists. Usually friends or relatives of the subject commission the artwork, often as a surprise. They are then asked to submit photos from which the artists can work. Once the picture is finished, it is sent to the subject.
The project spread around the world thanks to Instagram and the hashtag #portraitsfornhsheroes. Mr Croft has had interest from artists in countries including Belgium, Spain, Germany, Greece, Poland and Australia; these painters have been capturing both NHS staff and health workers in their own countries. Lucille Smith, an artist based in Los Angeles, has done several works of both British and Americans doctors, while other American artists such as John Borowicz have been inspiring their peers to contribute under the hashtags #portraitsforusheroes. Mr Croft has been so caught up in the unexpected success of the project that he has only had time to complete one portrait, a daunting image of Harriet Durkin, a nurse, in full personal protective equipment.
For the artists involved this is a unique opportunity, Mr Croft suggests, to contribute to a national emergency. Barbara Hoogeweegen, who has painted seven portraits so far (pictured), declares that this is the “most rewarding art” that she has ever done. Similarly, to be trusted with rendering Dr Keoh’s vulnerability was “humbling”, Ms Clatworthy says. “I poured a big chunk of my soul into the painting.”
Many subjects and their families describe how the portraits have provided comfort during the most dangerous and stressful periods of their lives. Emma Phelps commissioned a portrait of her daughter, Christy, a nurse, to help her overcome her own feelings of “impotence” about the dangers Christy was facing on the wards. For her part, Ms Garlock feels “very proud” of her portrait; “it gave me a real boost”. “It makes you feel special,” says Dr Keoh.
Viewers can scroll through the thousands of images under #portraitsfornhsheroes on Instagram. Fifteen of the paintings are also on display in a virtual exhibition organised by Mr Croft and the Net Gallery, an online art hub; the artworks were installed and scanned at Fitzrovia Chapel in London, the former chapel of Middlesex Hospital, and will raise money for NHS Charities Together. Mr Croft hopes that many of the portraits will also be displayed to viewers physically. Hospitals would be an obvious place to hang selections; some have already enquired. Wherever they go, the paintings will form a uniquely rich record of one of the most difficult periods in the country’s history.
To access the Net Gallery’s exhibition of “Portraits for NHS Heroes”, click here