Honouring war veterans with portraits

By Sally Churchward

Senior Feature Writer

Honouring war veterans with portraits

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A HAMPSHIRE artist is on a mission to make portraits of as many surviving Second World War veterans as possible – and a selection of her work is being shown in Stockbridge this weekend.

It all began when Nel Brooks read a story about an appeal for people to send Christmas cards to Ted Owens, a lonely veteran, in late 2017.

Nel, who had been to art school and had recently started doing portraits again after years away from the easel, got in touch to see if he would like to have his portrait done.

Ted was keen and sent Nel some photos of himself.

Nel made his portrait and printed a copy of it, which she and her husband, Len, took to him.

"He loved it and my husband suggested we try to find more veterans to do their portraits," says Nel.

She has now done ten portraits and sketched four faces, with photographs of 35 more people waiting to have their portraits done.

Nel's portrait of Mr. I. JOHN Richards, DFM, MID

With each pastel portrait taking around 60 hours to do, Nel is working hard to get through the backlog.

She and her husband scour car boot sales for suitable frames for prints and pay for printing as well as their petrol costs when they travel in their converted van, with their two cats, to present them to the veterans.

Sometimes they visit local British Legions on their travels to see if their are any veterans who would like to have their portraits done, and other times they make special trips to meet up with veterans.

"The veterans are really keen to have their portraits done," says Nel.

"It means a lot to them. They are very grateful to be recognised, and they want us never to forget the war.

"I interview them about their time in the war and put details from that into the portraits.

"One chap told me that his battalion had geese that they took with them everywhere and his commanding officer had a grand piano, so that used to go everywhere too, so those are in his painting.

"My father served in the RAF in North Africa during the war, and he never talked about it; hearing these stories almost feels like a way of saying goodbye to him.

"I also think it's really important to record their experiences. Often people don't talk about the war to their own families, but they seem to be happier to open up to strangers.

"I feel it's important to get it down, because once they're gone, their stories will be lost.

"I am doing a portrait of John Jenkins, who is quite a well-known veteran. He wanted to have 24 can-can girls in his portrait, and he told me about when he hid in a pigsty as German soldiers went past, so both those things are going in."

Each veteran gets a print of their portrait, while Nel retains the originals to be exhibited.

They are set to be shown on Saturday and Sunday at Stockbridge Town Hall, to raise funds for the Royal British Legion and Nel hopes to hold further exhibitions in the future, to raise money for charities chosen by the veterans.

"I do it for the veterans," says Nel.

"They like it and it gives them a little bit of recognition, which I think is important. It also makes me sit down and work on my art, which I wouldn't do otherwise, so it's good for me too. It's all positive!"