Suffolk artist unveils haunting portrait which reveals strain suffered by NHS staff

Doctor Johnston in Addenbrookes ICU

'Doctor J', Heath Rosselli's portrait of the Addenbrookes critical care doctor Andrew Johnston, which captures the strain of the past year as ICU staff deal with Covid-19 - Credit: Heath Rosselli

A haunting portrait of an ICU doctor by a leading Suffolk artist has captured the emotional and mental toll that the Covid-19 pandemic has wrought on frontline workers, one year into the crisis.

The painting, by artist Heath Rosselli from Worlington, near Mildenhall, depicts Dr Andrew Johnston from the John Farman ICU at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge, from the perspective of a patient on a ventilator, looking directly into the viewers’ eyes.

Heath Rosselli, who has exhibited work at the National Portrait Gallery, The Louvre, Royal Society of Portrait Painters Annual Exhibition at the Mall Galleries and the New English Art Club, hopes that the highly affecting portrait – entitled ‘Doctor J’ - will encourage frontline workers to reflect on and talk about the mental health impact of the past year, and reach out for support if they need it through ‘Our Frontline’, an initiative which offers round the clock mental health and bereavement support for key workers. 

Last April, when the first wave of the virus took hold, Rosselli, who specialises in preserving the time-honoured oil painting techniques of the Old Masters, had the idea of capturing what was happening for historical record. 

She said: “My aim at the outset was to create a snapshot in time that will last beyond photographs, to convey a message about the courage and commitment of frontline workers at this extraordinary time in history, something that can be passed onto present and future generations about this crisis. 

“I wanted to capture the humanity and fragility behind the masks, PPE and the ‘hero’ labels.  Dr Johnston’s face may be covered, but his eyes speak volumes about the emotional and mental toll of the pandemic.”

Rosselli worked on the portrait throughout the year in between commissions, and as the pandemic unfolded, the message of the painting began to evolve in tandem, taking on an increasing focus on mental health.

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“My paintings tend to take on a mind of their own, and I found that with the second spike and the enormous emotional burden that is once again on frontline staff, Dr Johnston’s facial expression started to evolve. We had no idea when I started the painting that the pandemic would be going on for so long, and I think the sheer relentlessness of it all is evident in the painting. If even one frontline worker relates to the look in Dr Johnston’s eyes and is compelled to seek support, then it’s done its work.”

Heath Rosselli in her Suffolk studio

Suffolk artist Heath Rosselli in her studio working on the painting Doctor J which is being loaned to NHS hospitals to encourage medical staff to seek help if they feel they are close to burn-out - Credit: Heath Rosselli

Dr Johnston said: “The portrait is incredibly powerful and I found it hard to look away. It offers a glimpse of the emotional and physical toil this pandemic has had on staff, and provides a moment to reflect on how it has felt to work on the frontline over the past year. A year into the pandemic, some staff are doing okay, while others are chronically stressed, distressed, exhausted and burning out. Heath has captured a sense of sadness and exhaustion, but also a sense of diligence, professionalism and a focused team who have risen to the challenge during extraordinary circumstances and often dark and frightening times.”

Rosselli is now keen that the painting is seen by NHS staff across the country, and plans to loan it out to hospitals to be exhibited in staff-facing areas, starting with Addenbrooke’s.

Our Frontline offers round-the-clock one-to-one support for frontline workers, by call, text and online. For more information on the free and confidential support, visit Our Frontline

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