Amid the Covid chaos, portraits of hospital's virus heroes

UCLH's artist in residence carried on from home

Friday, 31st July 2020 — By Tom Foot

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Sitting for a portrait was like ‘meditation’

THE calm resolve of NHS staff has been captured in an exhibition of portraits created during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The pencil drawings were made by the University College London Hospital’s artist in residence, Simon Tolhurst, via video call on Zoom. Mr Tolhurst, who lives in Camden Town, has created hundreds of portraits of cancer patients at the UCLH-run MacMillan Cancer Centre, in Huntley Street, since 2013.

But unable to visit that hospital due to the coronavirus outbreak, he turned his attention to staff. “Some were frontline, some were from admin areas, but everyone was caught up with the circumstances,” said Mr Tolhurst.

“There were younger nurses – some had just started in January, some had qualified and had just come onto the wards. One on the infectious diseases ward, her entire career had been during Covid and it was an incredible time to join. “What struck me was how they were all so very calm. In terms of emotions around the subject, nobody was stressing or upset. They were saying, ‘we’re coping’.”

He added: “I suppose the difference was that when you are drawing cancer patients you’re aware they are going through a very serious treatment. Sometimes a new patient will have a terminal diagnosis and, obviously, the drawing is going to be poignant for them.”

“Patients have passed away when I was not expecting it. But equally, people come back from it – it is incredible what they can do. I am an artist living in a garret and struggling in life generally. But these people are doing this amazing job, a highly technical, highly skilled job – and they are doing all kinds of things as well as their work.”

Mr Tolhurst, who lives in Camden Street, has worked at the University London Union in Malet Street for more than 20 years, mainly at the front desk. He said it was important to sketch his subjects live and admitted he was a “bit snobbish” about the alternative of working from a photo.

Artist Simon Tolhurst

He said: “I’m followed a lot by photorealist artists, but I don’t see how any self-respecting artist can turn a photo into a painting or a drawing. Imagine if there was a pre-existing photo of the Mona Lisa in pose? It would change the perception of that painting.”

Mr Tolhurst had put a laptop in a room in the Wellcome Trust building in Euston Road that had been made available to UCLH staff for respite from the chaos of the coronavirus peak.

Sometimes when it was a live feed, people just walked in. Or appointments could be booked and also staff could nominate each other.

“What I found with so many of the staff, posing for me, they were comfortable and engaged with the process,” said Mr Tolhurst. “I would say posing for an artist is the closest thing to meditation.”

The exhibition is on display in the ground floor of the main building. It is not accessible to the public but Mr Tolhurst said he hoped staff would see the story and go and take a look.

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