Devon artist James Murch creates powerful trio of NHS portraits

Karen Chapman
Karen Chapman

During lockdown, painter James Murch responded to a call for artists by fellow artist Tom Croft, on the online social media platform Instagram. Tom was looking for artists to create portraits of NHS staff, as a means of giving them something beneficial during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

James shared why he responded: “My decision to take part was, for me, a way to help lift the spirits in a small way and inject some positivity into the situation, and seeing the whole initiative go viral and even global, was a testament to how much this sort of thing was needed.

“It’s not often that the artistic community can boast of having had such a promising impact in the world of medicine, so it was a really nice feeling to be a part of it.

“It might seem ludicrous to say it, but as soon as I put the offer out on my Instagram feed, in the form of the recommended green notice board, I immediately thought, ‘What if nobody wants a portrait by me, that would be embarrassing!’ I tend to focus more on landscapes these days, so I don’t have many examples of portraiture on my Instagram feed. Having said that, I have cut my teeth in the challenging subject of portraiture, so I knew I could do it.

“I needn’t have worried, as within an hour, I had been matched with Alex, a doctor who leads a COVID response team. She was nominated by her friend, who told me of how selfless and beautiful she is, both inside and out, and being painted in oils was just the perfect expression of this. No pressure then!

Shortly before sending the portrait, Alex was sent home, COVID-19 positive. ‘Perk of the job’, she quipped in her stalwart manner, but I’m pleased to report she has now recovered.

“Very soon after my initial Instagram post, before I had time to follow up the green notice with a red one, I received a message from another lady, Karen, who wanted to nominate her son, Brett. I had no intention of painting more than one portrait; I was putting a lot into Alex’s painting and I wasn’t sure if I could do any more. Before I could politely decline doing a second one, I read through her comment and the reasons for nominating her son.

“Although young, Brett is in the vulnerable group, having recently undergone heart surgery. Getting ill carried a much greater risk for him. Despite this, Brett had insisted on going back to work on the front line, to be there for his team. Karen sent me photos of her son, fully kitted out in PPE, and I could only imagine the worry this must have caused her. I explained that I had already been paired up but I would paint Brett’s portrait, and since she is also a nurse, hers as well. In for a penny…!”

James’ generous decision led to him painting a powerful trio of images bearing witness to the selfless service that members of NHS staff have rendered to our communities during the pandemic.

Devonshire born and bred, James is inspired by the world that surrounds him, particularly anything that creates unique patterns and contrasts. ‘Painterly, colourful and bold’ is how he describes his work, which examines the connectivity of light with colour and an appreciation of nature. From a very young age, he was painting and drawing: “I used to do murals on the walls at home – my mum encouraged that sort of thing”. Influenced by his mother’s wise advice to just paint what he saw, James has become a firm believer in painting ‘en plein air’. The sounds, smells and even the British weather conditions all contribute to his paintings, which have been shortlisted by the Royal Institute of Oil Painters.

James had a brief stint at an art college but decided it wasn’t for him and left to work in various industries whilst pursuing art as a hobby. He began taking his artistic practice more seriously around 2006, studying countless books and resources to gain a better understanding of the craft of painting. James began by studying portraiture, with the view that such a demanding subject would offer the steepest learning curve. With an appreciation of form, colour and composition, he gradually began to develop his own visual language. After some years, he sent a portrait to the Royal Institution of Portrait Painters and it was shortlisted for the exhibition. He also won a regional award for portraiture in the same year.

James’ portrait of his sister Helen won runner up prize at the Riviera Fringe Festival in 2014, sponsored by Triton Galleries. A painting of his brother Luke was shortlisted for the Royal Institute of Portrait Artists in 2015/16. He then took part in Sky Arts Landscape Artist of the Year 2019 and his painting ‘Goodrington’ won him a place in the show.

He then won his heat in Plymouth and reached the semi-finals in Scotland. Enjoying success in the group exhibition at Clarendon Fine Art in Mayfair, he sold all of his work in the finalists’ show. Although he works mostly in oils, James loves to draw in any medium, from oil pastel to pen and ink, and also dabbles in relief printing from time to time. Using his natural surroundings, James often paints the same locations repeatedly, to explore different compositions and colour effects. He believes in pursuing his own visual language that he says comes firstly from looking carefully and then making selections based on a combination of intuition, imagination and curiosity, which are all excited and inspired by nature. James describes his work as “an expression of the celebration of life”.

What’s next for James, who when I spoke to him was exhibiting at Cockington Court, Torquay? “I am loving my time at Cockington and a residency has been lined up for me there, thanks to the indomitable Marissa Wakefield, who has really been championing my art recently.

“The beautiful estate at Cockington will feature heavily in my work going forward. I am also very excited about working on a collaboration with Marissa, the Centre Director, who is passionate about creating paper from all kinds of materials.”

Visit to find out more about James’ work and to view an interesting short film about painting en plein air – click on the ‘Blog’ tab. There are also two time-lapse videos of him painting in Landscape Artist of the Year.

In addition he can be found on Instagram (@James_Murch), Twitter (@artbyjamesmurch) and Facebook (@Jamesmurchartist).

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