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Cambridgeshire landscape artist now painting NHS workers




Burwell-based artist Di Cope specialises in painting landscapes but has now moved into portraiture, capturing NHS workers – including her daughter – who are on the frontline of the pandemic.

Sunset, Burwell Fen. Painted by Di Cope
Sunset, Burwell Fen. Painted by Di Cope

The mother of three took up painting seriously in 2016, when her youngest child started school. Her children are now 18, 13 and 9.

A scientist by trade, Di now works on her art in a studio above her garage in the summer and in the house during the colder months – although home-schooling her nine-year-old son has somewhat curtailed her activities.

Di mostly paints in oil – though she has branched out into pencil, charcoal and crayon – tends to work from photographs and enjoys painting landscapes local to Burwell, particularly those with ‘big’ skies and summer flowers.

She says that she was able to paint more back in the autumn when her children were in school. “Of course, in December it all ground to a halt again!” she says.

Di, who also participates in Cambridge Open Studios, continues: “Back in March, April, May time I did two NHS portraits and over the last couple of weeks I’ve been doing a third one.”

She believes that attitudes towards portraits have changed and demand has increased. In the past, commissioned portraiture might have been more associated with the rich and famous, but a movement on social media that began last year has turned that on its head.

Burwell Lode North. Painted by Di Cope
Burwell Lode North. Painted by Di Cope

Called Portraits for NHS Heroes, the national movement was started on Instagram by renowned portrait painter Thomas Croft, who has also had a book published with the same title.

“There were hundreds in the end,” says Di, “so that’s hundreds of ordinary people... well, they’re not ‘ordinary’ – and that’s why they’re being painted. They are people who otherwise wouldn’t have had their portraits painted.”

Stephanie Ramsey, an ICU nurse at St George's Hospital, London. Painted by Di Cope
Stephanie Ramsey, an ICU nurse at St George's Hospital, London. Painted by Di Cope

Under Thomas Croft’s initiative, artists put out invitations for people who would like their portraits painted and waited for responses.

“He’s a portrait artist who lives in Oxford and he decided, looking at all these amazing people working for the NHS, that he wanted to do something, as an artist, to help.

“So he put out a call on Instagram saying, ‘I will paint one portrait for free of an NHS hero’ and he had hundreds of applications. He painted the first one and other artists decided, ‘Well, there’s all these people who’d like to have their portrait painted, I’ll do one’.

"Lots of artists decided they would do this and I joined in.”

Penny McDougall, former matron and nurse at the Evalina Children's Hospital, St Thomas's. Painted by Di Cope
Penny McDougall, former matron and nurse at the Evalina Children's Hospital, St Thomas's. Painted by Di Cope

In the time since, Di painted her first two portraits – both of whom were of people from London – her Harlow-based daughter, Alice, has become a nursing apprentice at the age of 18. Di is now working on her daughter’s portrait.

Di Cope from Burwell with the portrait of her daughter an NHS worker. Picture: Keith Heppell
Di Cope from Burwell with the portrait of her daughter an NHS worker. Picture: Keith Heppell

Di believes there is something special about a painting that a photograph cannot convey. Similarly, she says her landscapes offer a different view to landscape photography.

“Unless it was a commission for a very special place, I would paint from a series of photographs and take the best bits from each, which you can’t do from a photograph," she says. “I can take the bits that I like and miss things out if I don’t like them – like if there’s an ugly factory in the middle of the countryside, as we have in Burwell.

Sunset, Wicken Fen. Painted by Di Cope (44255709)
Sunset, Wicken Fen. Painted by Di Cope (44255709)

"It doesn’t have to be in the painting, even though it’s in the photograph, but it can still be a recognisable part of the countryside.”

As a Cambridgeshire artist, Di is used to bringing to life the famously flat fenlands. “I did have somebody come to my studio once and say, ‘Can you paint mountains?’ and I said, ‘Well, I probably could paint mountains, but I paint local scenes.

“I think painting flat landscapes is a challenge in its own way. It’s what we have and it’s beautiful – I love the East Anglian skies.

“Sometimes when you go out walking on the Fens, it’s the sky that you notice more than the landscape because they can be so beautiful.”

Find out more about Di Cope at dicope1.wixsite.com.

For more on Thomas Croft and his Portraits for NHS Heroes, visit thomascroft.co.uk.

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The alternative Cambridge Open Studios: How city’s artists are turning to street art exhibitions

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