May 7, 2020, by Richard Bates

Painting Florence: Interview with Nurse-Artist Louisa Long

Louisa Long is a mental health nurse trained at the University of Nottingham. She is completing a PhD on improving the care of young adults accessing mental health services while lecturing at the University’s School of Health Sciences. Over the last couple of years, she has been working on a portrait of Florence Nightingale, as you can see in the image. Dr Jonathan Memel from the project team caught up with her.


[All images courtesy of Louisa Long]


What prompted your interest in mental health nursing?

Partly it came from my own experience as a young adult, both using and working in mental health services. Prior to training as a nurse I worked in the voluntary sector with young adults, running recovery learning services. As I trained I worked with both adults and children, and became interested in the transition to adulthood and exploring the unique needs of people making that transition, who are not always recognised as a distinct group.

How did the idea to make a Nightingale portrait come about?

When I was younger I was very interested in the arts, but had left that behind at some point – I hardly did any painting for about 20 years. I got back into it as a kind of therapeutic process. Working as a nurse can be a stressful and emotional experience, you encounter situations that most people aren’t going to encounter—you find yourself very involved in intense moments in other people’s lives. I found painting was an outlet to help me process some of that, a way to access a more mindful ‘flow’ state. It’s something we talk about so much when we work with mental health patients, the therapeutic value of creative practices, yet it took me a long time to apply that lesson myself!

So I found that I suddenly had a desire to get back into the painting, so I ordered a large canvas, and wasn’t initially sure what I was going to do with it. But thinking about the identity of nursing, and mine within that, led me to think about Nightingale as an emblem.

I was born in the Derbyshire Royal Infirmary, which had a statue of Nightingale outside – so because of that, and growing up in Derby, I was aware of her as part of our local identity. I also did my nursing training in Derby, and later had a scholarship from the Florence Nightingale Foundation, so I had a heightened awareness of her from that. I started reading one of her biographies, and became fascinated by the aspects of her beyond the clinical nursing side, such as her involvement in science and public health.

So it’s partly to do with thinking about your own identity, specifically as a nurse?

Yes. Nursing work involves giving a lot of yourself, to the point where it can be hard to think about your identity as a nurse. You can ask yourself, ‘where am I in all of this?’

I think the identity of nursing as a profession is something all of us think about quite a lot. When you’re doing your training, each nursing placement is so completely different that it’s hard to have a holistic understanding of what nursing is. It’s important to nurses to want to know what their role is. Because nursing tends to fill a lot of gaps between other areas, it’s hard to define the profession precisely. Thinking along those lines can lead you back to Nightingale, as someone who was there at the beginnings of modern nursing.

What was your process for painting Nightingale?

It was very much something I was doing in the evenings, after my daughter was asleep, in my lounge at home, just on a blanket on the floor. I used my smartphone for reference images, flicking between different ones. The tricky part was the details, because most of the images I could find were quite grainy. At one point I got my husband to put my wedding dress sleeve on the door, to use the detail from that – and I used my own hands for Florence’s!

Were there any stumbling blocks during the painting?

Curiously enough it was the background – I was quite clear on the central figure of Florence and what that needed to look like, but I wasn’t sure where to place her. I had the idea to show her holding her post-Crimean war report, with the famous polar area diagrams showing the death rates from disease, so I thought it might be a good idea to put her in a library. So I started to go around stately homes, and studying old library settings, but in the end I felt like I had bitten off more than I could chew in terms of the amount of detail involved in getting that right. So then I thought about an abstract blue background, but that looked awful!

Louisa’s experiment with the bookcase background

In the end I went with the wooden panelling from the original photo, which I thought worked because it placed her in a homely environment, and yet it’s also quite simple. I think with Nightingale that although there is something stately about her, there’s also something quite austere, and I felt that this aspect of her suited a simple background, rather than something more ornate.

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