This was published towards the end of 2020 and coming late to this review has had a number of effects. The first is to add perspective, and question whether it was a thing of its moment and whether that moment has passed. The second is to wonder whether what amounts to a retrospective hasn’t enhanced that very viewpoint. This is particularly so as we are in the middle of an even greater wave with almost unbearable pressure on health services and frequent accounts of burnout. Thirdly, I’ve had a chance to mull this over and decide my reaction in what I hope is more than just the emotion of the moment.
You can hardly have missed this. The publisher’s PR department went into overdrive and virtually every major publication contained an extract. It’s a worthy cause and it wears its heart very prominently on its sleeve. There’s nothing wrong with that in essence, but we’re reviewing this as a book in general, not a cause, and a book of paintings in particular.
There’s a degree of self-awareness relating to that in the choice of writers for the forewords – Michael Rosen (writer par excellence, national treasure and Covid survivor himself), Adebanji Alade (everyone’s favourite character sketcher, mine included) and Dr Jim Down (ICU medic and therefore messenger from the front line). You’d want some boxes ticked and they all are. Tom Croft is a self-employed portrait painter who started the online “free portrait for NHS workers” campaign that took off to such an extent that he’d matched 500 artists and subjects in two weeks. This is a collection of some of those.
The first thing that strikes you is the sheer variety of subjects, styles, approaches and treatments. There are small amounts of text, either from the subject or artist (sometimes both) that add just enough depth to make this more than a random snapshot album. It will in future, I think, stand as a record of what will amount to a moment in world and human history. There will be retrospective analyses of this pandemic in coming years and it’s hard not to see this book featuring in them.
From the artistic point of view, it’s up to you to decide what you can (and for what matter want) to learn from a collection of other people’s work. However, if you think this amount of variety is what you need, this book is probably unique on that front.
My only slight criticism, and I feel like a terrible curmudgeon for having it, is that the majority of subjects are doctors, nurses and paramedics – there’s only one administrator. Where are the support staff – porters, cleaners, caterers, without whose background – often unseen – labours none of those on the frontline would be able to function? They were at least as vulnerable, often more so as protective equipment was diverted away from them. Maybe someone feels like filling that void?
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