An important visual tribute by talented UK portrait artists, to the individuals who have put their physical and mental health on the line during the Covid-19 crisis is how it has been described…

We are celebrating the release of Tom Croft’s Portrait of NHS Heroes published by Bloomsbury this week by looking back on the lockdown project that turned into a phenomenon.

The UK lockdown in March 2020 had a significant impact on the nation’s psyche. A despondent Tom Croft in his studio in Oxford started to have an existential crisis about the role of art in a pandemic. Was there any point to painting when facing a health and economic crisis? As a skilled portrait painter who had built a reputation for capturing likeness in oils and had participated in Portrait Artist of the Year 2018, he began to reflect on the nature of portraiture and, through that exercise, started a project that would change his life.

A portrait is a permanent physical record of someone’s existence. It also immortalises people, as the portraits are likely to last far longer than the subjects.”  Tom Croft

In the face of this crisis, he focused his attention to who should be immortalised onto canvas during this time. His conclusion, the everyday people who’s jobs meant they literally risked their lives, knowingly, on a daily basis for our well being. The NHS workers. He felt that these are the people who should line the walls of galleries and that future generations will look back on as the people who really were heroes.

The project decided, he took to Instagram by posting a short video offering to paint a free portrait to the first NHS Key Worker to contact him. He also suggested that other portrait artists might like to offer one too. Artists were asked to post their portraits under the hashtag #portraitsfornhsheroes so everyone could be seen online in a virtual exhibition. The idea being that when restrictions are lifted and mass gatherings are allowed again, there could be wonderful exhibition to celebrate and say thank you, to the heroes of the NHS.

The response was overwhelming from both NHS workers and artists alike. The quality of the artwork was outstanding. So successful was the project that there are now similar initiatives based on #portraitsfornhsheroes in Ireland, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Greece, Poland, Malaysia, Canada and America.

Tom’s first portrait was Harriet, an A & E nurse in Manchester who had recently contracted corona virus and had to self isolate. As with all key workers, Tom knew that there were obviously two sides to Harriet. The Harriet her friends and family know and her professional side as  A&E nurse at the Manchester Royal Infirmary. He decided to therefore paint two portraits. One at work in her PPE gear and one to show her out of work in a more traditional portrait.

Other artists took up the call to arms and Instagram was soon flooded with portraits. News of the project swept across the media, and Tom and other portrait artists made headlines and found themselves on the front covers of coveted art magazines. Tom’s Portrait of Harriet even made it to the big screen at Piccadilly circus with thanks to Grant Milne.

Tom went on to work with Bloomsbury to produce a beautiful book celebrating the NHS portraits. A stunning physical record and testament to the NHS workers at their most challenging time. As well as being a wonderful permanent document, all royalties from the book go to NHS Charities Together.

You can buy your copy here:

Tom serves as a reminder to us all that we all have the power to make a difference. Much like another Tom who made his name during the pandemic, changing the world all begins with the first step of asking yourself what can I do? Art has always been a vehicle for change, so maybe we should start there… 

If you would like to read more about Tom’s amazing portrait initiative please use the links below.