Art of the operating theatre

The Orthopaedic Ankle Surgeon at Work: June 2014 by Helen Purdie, produced during her residency at Claremont Hospital
The Orthopaedic Ankle Surgeon at Work: June 2014 by Helen Purdie, produced during her residency at Claremont Hospital

Six years ago Helen Purdie gave up her career in the health service and became a full-time artist.

Earlier this year she was back in surgical scrubs to undertake a three-month residency at Claremont Hospital in Sheffield spent sitting within the operating theatres drawing the surgical team at work.

Artist Helen Purdie

Artist Helen Purdie

“I went in without any expectation of what I might produce and it was capturing the immediacy of what I was seeing that held me,” she says.

Because she aimed to capture the moment she took the decision right to complete each drawing in situ and not be tempted to touch it up later.

“I saw my drawing evolve and over time I got to prioritise the practice,” she continues. “I was nervous about that but it was exciting that it was my interpretation of what was happening at the time.”

The operations were everyday surgery, such as hip replacements, and some patients were anaesthetised, others conscious throughout.

Permission was needed from all the patients and reactions were positive. “People were actually excited about it,” she recalls.

But it was more the surgeons and staff that proved the focus of the drawings.

“On Casualty it’s all high drama whereas what I was seeing was a calm and disciplined practice,” she says.

“I was as engrossed in what I was doing as they were. It was an interesting process for me, it felt akin to what I had been doing before,” adds the former surgical education researcher.

“The operating theatre is a somewhat alien environment. Theatres have historically been away from public view and can even be an unfamiliar environment for other staff who work elsewhere in the hospital.

“I hope that, despite the vaguely unsettling surroundings of the operating theatre depicted, my drawings capture the very humane and warm people who come together to work within it for the common goal of patient care.”

Getting permission for the project was not easy because of the many levels of bureaucracy in the health service. That didn’t apply to Claremont.

“Although it’s a private hospital it does NHS work and a lot of the surgeons also work for the NHS and I knew from when I was working.

“We have been delighted to support Helen with this piece of work which has been well received by patients and staff alike,”said Andy Davey, director at Claremont Hospital. “Operating is an area that rarely features in artwork so we have been very happy to help with this exciting and unique project.”.

The Art of Surgery: Capturing the Surgical Team at Work is on view at the Winter Garden from October 17-24.

Some of the work will be included in a group exhibition, Surgeons at Work: The Art of the Operation at the Royal College of Surgeons at the Hunterian Museum in London next April.

The artist has also collected the drawings into a book which, along with prints and some of the drawings, can be bought via