On 28th May 2020, in the midst of Britain’s first COVID-19 lockdown, The Net Gallery launched a unique virtual exhibition showcasing portraits of NHS staff painted during the ongoing pandemic. Fifteen of the top portrait painters currently living and working in the UK – all members of the Contemporary British Portrait Painters (CBPP) – featured in the exhibition, which was installed and scanned at Fitzrovia Chapel, the former chapel of Middlesex Hospital.
This exhibition can still be viewed online here.
All the portraits in the exhibition were painted as part of the #portraitsforNHSheroes project, initiated by artist Tom Croft. The Net Gallery worked with Tom to curate a selection of contributions to the project, to showcase some of the amazing work created, and say thank you to those working on the COVID-19 frontline.
The virtual exhibition includes work by Patrick Morales-Lee, Angela Bell, Tim Benson, James Bland, Clive Bryant, Tom Croft, James Crowther, Peter Davis, Jane French, Ian Goldsmith, Steven Higginson, Danny Howes, Thomas Leveritt, Michael James Monaghan and Peter Monkman. One year on, we caught up with a few of these artists to hear about their experience of participating in #portraitsforNHSheroes and find out what they’ve been up to since the exhibition went live.
“The whole idea of Portraits for NHS Heroes was to shine a light on the unsung heroes of the NHS at their most challenging time. Thanking them and raising their status through portraiture, so I was thrilled we could show some of the paintings to a worldwide audience with the help of The Net Gallery. In the stunning location of the Fitzrovia chapel The Net Gallery produced an immersive 360 degree virtual experience of the CBPP members’ NHS Portraits. A year on and – while we are starting to benefit from the vaccine rollout – the NHS staff are still working flat out without the chance to attempt to start processing what they’ve gone through yet.”
“I am in discussions with two exciting venues for a big physical exhibition of the NHS portraits and I hope to be able to update people soon.
“In my own practice, I am currently working on a diverse range of private commissions, from a ship’s captain, portraits for significant birthdays through to a former Elton John tribute act! I’m extremely lucky to have such varied work in and look forward to sharing it on social media soon…”
“The painting of paramedic Darren Neeld was the first time in a long time that I’d tried to paint a portrait from a photo. I wanted it to be good, and there was a slight danger I would try to overwork it. Darren was helpful, because he seemed to appreciate what I was trying to do with simple shapes and colours. In that respect, he helped me stick to my natural, more abstract style and not get obsessed with a likeness.
“It was great to be involved in a celebration of NHS workers. It’s only a pity that people don’t seem to respect what they do a little more. It’s confusing to find out that so many of us will applaud the NHS and yet vote for political parties that actually oppose real-terms pay rises for nurses.”
“Since the [Portraits for NHS Heroes] book came out, I’ve been participating in a number of group exhibitions. Some have been online only, and some are starting to happen in real spaces now. The New English Art Club exhibition is coming up next month and a group exhibition with some talented friends (‘Now We Are Six’) follows in September. I have a solo exhibition coming up next year at the Tregony Gallery, and I’m painting for that already.
“In addition, I’ve been writing a cool magic realist novel about an elderly woman who sets out, on the death of her father, to have her family home in the north of England ‘validated’ as a public museum.”
“Painting Alex Ward for Portraits for NHS Heroes was a challenge. He was nominated by his brother, who wanted the painting to be a surprise. Therefore I could not obtain very good quality reference photos to work from. In the end, I used a photo taken outside at a family party, and I had to close the mouth (I’m not a fan of grinning portraits!) as well as change his clothing. The photograph was back‐lit which raised its own challenges but also gave the opportunity to play with colour a little where the form turned into shadow.”
“Shortly after Alex, I painted Nicky Clarke, a frontline nurse from Nottingham. For that portrait, I was able to get better reference to work from, taken by one of her colleagues (albeit on an overcast day!).
“My main development in portraiture since then has come about as a result of lockdown. Sky decided to put out a weekly four‐hour programme, Sky Portrait Artist of the Week on Facebook Live, also showing the last hour on the Sky Arts channel. Not only did that expose me to a whole host of lighting conditions, it forced me to revisit my whole approach to portrait sketches. The result has been a process that I’m calling the Blur Method, where I work from a blurred reference image at the start of the portrait, and make the reference successively less‐blurred as I progress.
“It allows me to work from generic to specific, creeping up on the finished portrait with judiciously applied details. It works really well for me, so much so that last month I released an instructional video detailing the entire process.
“There is no getting away from just how much suffering the pandemic has caused worldwide; however, on a personal level, I’ve managed to find really tangible positives. I’ve been able to take workshops with people remotely without getting on a plane, I’ve had more time to study, and I’ve met my new partner, all as a result of lockdown. Mentally and emotionally, lockdown has been strange and of course difficult at times.
“Like so many other artists, though, my introverted nature has for once been a benefit and has helped me through.”
“The painting that I created for #portraitsfornhsheroes began very differently to the way that I start my portrait paintings. Normally, I like to begin with a face-to-face session with my subject: to get to know them, do some sketches, explore some composition options and to take my own reference photographs. But we were in #Lockdown1, so it just wasn’t possible to meet Steph Hedge, the nurse I chose to paint.
“So, we chatted on the phone and came up with the idea to do the sitting live over FaceTime – which worked really well — and Steph’s flatmate took lots of reference images that I then worked from.”
“Last year’s lockdowns actually allowed me to spend more time at the easel than I normally would – there were less distractions and I took solace from painting in my studio. The last big portrait I did in 2020 was of my mother. She spent most of the pandemic in self-isolation but I was lucky enough to still be able to visit her (adhering to protocols). This portrait entitled, “Stay Safe Mum (elbow elbow)”, is all about how wearing a facemask has become an everyday occurrence and how her dependency on technology to be able to see friends and family, albeit virtually, became a vital lifeline.
“This painting is on show at Gallery Oldham until 26th June, as part of the Manchester Academy of Fine Arts’ (MAFA) member’s exhibition called ‘Art of the Everyday’.
“By the time last summer came round, all of my portrait commissions had been completed and as I wasn’t able to meet potential clients, new commissions ground to a halt. So I began working on some urban landscape paintings. During my lockdown walks, I did lots of street photography and street cast my figures whenever I could. Then back in my studio, I reconstructed everything that I’d captured into new paintings.”
“The compositions that I explored moved from busy streets to quiet alleyways and each vignette allowed me to tell a story of our time, of people going about their everyday lives, with technology in hand. This urban realist series has been a joy to do, and they’ve been really well received, so I am planning to continue with them. Now that lockdown is over (hopefully), I‘m also really looking forward to starting some new portrait commissions too.”
“Portraits for NHS heroes was such an important project both for the NHS workers involved and for me as an artist. During the early stages of the pandemic I was finding it difficult to engage with painting, the whole experience was quite overwhelming and having had the coronavirus I was feeling well below par. The opportunity to recognise and honour the work that the NHS workers were doing helped me focus my energies and gave my practice a new purpose.
“Mark is an exceptional person in many respects and it was important to me to offer my skills as an artist to commemorate his professionalism. Also in many respects Mark is just a man, the situation he found himself in was nightmarish and he, as were the rest of the NHS, was dealing with a crisis that was testing all his strength, courage and personal reserves. I wanted to acknowledge the man behind the uniform and let him know that he was seen, valued and supported.
“Painting Mark’s portrait was a very emotional and challenging experience. I wanted to do my absolute best and produce a portrait that was personal but also represented him in a public arena. I will be forever grateful to Mark for his outstanding contribution and to Tom Croft for his determination to elevate our NHS workers through this project.”
“Since #portraitsfornhsheroes I have been developing a new body of work alongside a number of commissions. There is a renewed drive and focus to my practice with the value and importance of portraiture at the fore.
“During lockdown my time and energy was devoted to my children. Homeschooling and caring for their well-being took priority and as a result my time in the studio was severely limited. Painting is such a crucial element to my personal well-being and having the opportunity to return to the studio full time has been a blessing. I’m excited about the potential that lies ahead and look forward to opening my books once again to accept new commissions.
“I have had the opportunity to exhibit with the Contemporary British Portrait Painters and I am in the process of developing work for future exhibitions. I have always been a great supporter of our NHS and I hope that there will be an occasion when the Portraits for NHS Heroes work can be shown as a complete body of work and that we can continue to offer our support and appreciation to those who have and continue to do so much for us all.”
Article by Toby Buckley.
You can view the Portraits for NHS Heroes Virtual Exhibition on The Net Gallery’s website here: https://thenetgallery.com/portraits-for-nhs-heroes/
The exhibition was organised in support of NHS Charities Together. You can support them via their website.
Work from the wider #portraitsforNHSheroes project can be found in the book, also titled “Portraits for NHS Heroes”, published by Bloomsbury in November last year.
You can continue to follow and engage with #portraitsforNHSheroes via Instagram.