She looks every inch the old-fashioned nurse, right down to the rather severe glare she’s giving the artist and, consequently, me.
Sometimes I admire her outmoded dress and everything it stands for; sometimes I think rebelliously that the hangover of her Victorian matriarchal values is the reason why nurses are not accorded the same salary and professional respect as other, comparable professions.
When I started nursing I was taught how to make a bed: pillowcases always facing away from the door. Curious, I asked why.
‘It’s in case there’s a bomb. That way the dust and dirt from the explosion won’t fly into the pillowslip,’ I was told.
I was flabbergasted. Had no one told this nurse that the Blitz was over quite some time ago now? In any case, I couldn’t imagine diving for cover from a bomb and then finding time to break into a sweat about a grubby pillowslip.
Nursing and traditions are bound as tightly as the warp and the weft. And I think that’s both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because there are generations of dedicated and single-minded people – particularly women – behind us who were passionate about caring for those who are sick. And a curse because the traditions of those who gave birth to us – religion and the military – do not necessarily support a profession of the 21st century.
I have a love-hate relationship with the image of nursing but I’ll try not to glower at that long-dead matron. It seems, after all, a little unfair to heap such a multitude of charged emotions on what is, after all, only a portrait.
Arabella Sinclair-Penwarden is a staff nurse in Devon