Ruth Millington Explores The Net Gallery’s Portraits for NHS Heroes Virtual Exhibition

As a special contribution to The Net Gallery Journal, guest writer Ruth Millington – an art critic and writer who has written for a number of leading publications, as well as appearing on TV – explores our Portraits for NHS Heroes Virtual Exhibition, going behind the paintings to tell the stories of some of the subjects depicted.

A new virtual exhibition, hosted by The Net Gallery, is showcasing portraits of our NHS heroes. Amidst the Covid-19 crisis, leading artists from across the UK have painted incredibly moving portraits of frontline NHS staff: nurses, doctors, staff from A&E departments, care workers, anaesthetists and specialists from psychiatric wards.

The project was initiated by artist Tom Croft, when he offered to paint a keyworker’s portrait in a post on Instagram. The first person to contact Tom was Harriet Durkin, an A&E nurse working at Manchester Royal Infirmary. Since Tom painted his portrait of Harriet, the hashtag #portraitsfornhsheroes has inspired thousands of artists to follow-suit via social media, with the initiative inspiring similar undertakings in other countries.

The artworks created in the UK immortalise our NHS staff as real-life superheroes, dressed not in capes and crowns, but PPE. Fifteen of these portraits have been exhibited in a virtual exhibition, thanks to The Net Gallery.

The Net Gallery approached Tom Croft with the idea of creating a virtual Portraits for NHS Heroes exhibition. They wanted to create an engaging exhibition experience online, which people could access during, and despite, lockdown.

Fitzrovia Chapel 05252020 182604
Portraits for NHS Heroes at Fitzrovia Chapel

All of the artists exhibiting are members of the Contemporary British Portrait Painters (CBPP), which represents many of the top portrait painters living and working in the UK.

“The CBPP is a group of some of the best portrait artists working in Britain today and I feel very lucky to be part of the collective. This exhibition is a small focused collection of works that tell personal stories, both uplifting and tragic. I am very thankful to The Net Gallery for putting this show together so quickly and in such challenging circumstances.” – Tom Croft, artist and founder of the Portraits for NHS Heroes.

The Net Gallery secured the perfect venue for the portraits – the Grade II listed Fitzrovia Chapel in London, the former chapel of Middlesex Hospital. It is, undoubtedly, the ideal setting to honour these heroic portraits, both because of its beautiful and uplifting interior, but also because of its close connection to a hospital that for over two centuries was one of the most important in London.

“We’ve heard so many wonderful and poignant stories from medical staff who worked at the Middlesex Hospital about how the chapel was a place of great solace and respite for them, a space to draw breath in difficult times. During this period of national crisis, therefore, we’re delighted that the chapel is being used to host this virtual exhibition highlighting the incredible dedication and human stories of our NHS staff.” – Hannah Watson, Chair, the Fitzrovia Chapel.

The Net Gallery then turned to some amazing technology, installing and scanning the exhibition, and creating a virtual walk-through online. Created using prints produced from photos of the original paintings, the show is visually stunning. You are able to get close to each one of the masterpieces, taking in the sensational detail and quality of the artwork.

“We wanted to use our 3D virtual scanning technology to showcase the campaign, enabling the public to experience the portraits in an exhibition format, despite the lockdown. Everything was achieved very quickly, while still following social distancing guidelines, with the goal of helping boost awareness and appreciation for our NHS heroes, as well as the amazingly talented artists who have depicted them.” – Stuart Henry, Founder of The Net Gallery.

Portraits for NHS Heroes is such an important tribute to the individuals who have put their physical and mental health on the line during the Covid-19 crisis. These portraits, and the exhibition, ensure that we recognise the real people behind their PPE, capturing their bravery but also their vulnerability. These are individuals who have made huge sacrifices to keep us all safe, and it is their humanity which makes them truly heroic.

Let’s meet the real people behind the portraits…

Tom Croft Harriet min
Harriet Durkin by Tom Croft

Harriet Durkin by Tom Croft

Harriet Durkin is an A&E nurse, who was off work whilst the portrait was being made as she was suffering from Covid-19 symptoms. Harriet explained that the artist had captured “the first time I put full PPE on at work”, which made her feel “extremely nervous”. The portrait epitomises the experience of those NHS staff, simultaneously shielded in protective equipment, whilst humanly vulnerable underneath.

Danny Howes Izzy 25x30cm min
Izzy Speight by Danny Howes

Izzy Speight by Danny Howes

Izzy Speight is a staff nurse at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. She shared a number of photos with artist, Danny Howes, who selected one, taken straight after a long shift, upon which he based this portrait. “The emotion and sense of being physically and emotionally drained really spoke to me and I wanted to capture this”, explained Danny.

Tasha by Ian Goldsmith
Tasha Rainsley by Ian Goldsmith

Tasha Rainsley by Ian Goldsmith

Tasha Rainsley is a nurse who works in the critical care unit of the DGH (Eastbourne District General Hospital). Tasha explains, “I’d just come out of critical care”, when the was portrait painted, which is clear as “you can see the marks from the PPE”. Despite her extremely exhausting and demanding job, Tasha is smiling, and insists that the portrait “captured me and how I was feeling”, suggesting the joy she gains from her selfless work.

Jo by Jane French
Jo Habben by Jane French

Jo Habben by Jane French

Jo Habben’s world was turned upside down upon the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic. She was suddenly seconded from her normal role in the organisation to work clinically with the infection. She explains what having her portrait painted has meant to her:

“The Portraits Project has captured the honesty, rawness and reality of the NHS during the pandemic. Ordinary people doing their jobs – suddenly thrust into the focus and spotlight. My portrait captured so much of what that day was about – wanting to show strength, positivity and the person behind the FFP3 respirator mask.”

Dr Matt May by Patrick Morales Lee
Dr. Matt May by Patrick Morales Lee

Dr Matt May by Patrick Morales-Lee

Dr Matt May is an A&E consultant at St Thomas Hospital in London, although he is originally from Cornwall and proudly calls himself “Cornish bred”. He was keen to have his portrait painted as a way of memorialising the reality of the crisis for those working amongst the pandemic response: “the main point of this project for me is to document this piece of history”. This portrait presents the reality for NHS workers; his exhaustion is clearly visible behind the protective visor which covers his face.

Clive Bryant DrAlexWardApril2020Large1 min
Dr. Alex Ward by Clive Bryant

Dr Alex Ward by Clive Bryant

Dr Alex Ward is a Doctor and GP in the South of England. He was nominated for this portrait by his brother, who supplied the artists with several photos to choose from. Clive Bryant selected a snap of him at a birthday party because he “liked how the sunlight burst on to the side of his face.” It seems an apt depiction, illuminating the heroism, and humanity, of this man who has been risking himself to keep us safe.

Ange Bell portrait of Mark
Ange Bell portrait of Mark

Mark by Ange Bell

Mark, who works for the ambulance service in Northern Ireland, says that he was very pleased when Ange asked to paint his portrait: “She is a fantastic painter and I could not have been happier. The end result blew me away”. He sees the series of paintings, and exhibition, as an important mark of history: “it records the real people as it happens”. He also feels that the pandemic has shone a light on the NHS:

“This pandemic has put the NHS right in the public consciousness which is where it needs to be. It is a much-abused service and all of us need to appreciate it with or without Covid. I hope this new love and respect for the health service continues and lasts. Everyone of us will need it at least once in our lives, it should be treated with great respect always”.

PETER DAVIS Steph Hedge portraitsfornhsheros 2020 painting FINAL RGB min
Steph Hedge by Peter Davis

Steph Hedge by Peter Davis

Steph Hedge is a newly qualified nurse, who started her career during the crisis. Steph was moved by the NHS Portraits project: “it’s so kind of all the artists that have got involved”, she said. Remarkable that she was struck by their generosity, when her care has served and saved so many patients.

Darren Neeld by James Bland
Darren Neeld by James Bland

Darren Neeld by James Bland

Darren Neeld works as a paramedic. He disclosed, “it’s been a humbling experience being part of the NHS during the pandemic”, referencing the support from the public during lockdown. Darren also shared that the Portraits for NHS Heroes is “a great example of some of the support we have received”, perceiving that this pandemic has really brought not just the NHS, but the nation, together in the time of need.

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Sharon Stone by Peter Monkman

Sharon Stone by Peter Monkman

Sharon Stone is a senior sister at Williton Hospital community and stroke rehabilitation unit. Sharon told us that she finds nursing “the best job in the world”, despite the intensity of the Covid-19 pandemic. Sharon said that she was thrilled with the portrait, which she received on 12th May, which is National Nurses Day! Sharon is delighted with the portrait, reflecting that her dad will be “proud”. It’s a reminder that many NHS workers have made huge personal sacrifices, such as isolating from family members, whilst they have worked on the front-line, in order to protect them.

Tim Benson
Karl Ellis by Tim Benson

Karl Ellis by Tim Benson

Karl Ellis works in a forensics lab for the NHS in Oxford. As the artist, Tim Benson, explains: “It was a real pleasure and honour to paint Karl Ellis for #portraitsfornhsheroes. Karl works for the NHS in Oxford. I felt that it was extremely important to recognise the crucial and often dangerous work that NHS workers are undertaking on our behalf. Painting Karl’s portrait was my way of saying thank you.”

To walk through the poignant virtual exhibition, please visit Portraits for NHS Heroes here.

Article by Ruth Millington.

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