A Tribute To the Health Workers from the NHS
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 91×91 cm (35 7/8 x 35 7/8 inches)
Signed ‘BANKSY’ (lower right)
Auction House: Christie’s London
Date: 23 March 2021
Price Realized: GBP 16,758,000 / USD 23,210,000
NEW WORLD RECORD AT AUCTION FOR BANKSY
PROCEEDS WILL BE USED TO SUPPORT THE WELLBEING OF UNIVERSITY HOSPITAL SOUTHAMPTON STAFF AND PATIENTS
On 6 May 2020, during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, a painting appeared at University Hospital Southampton. In crisp, linear detail, it showed a young boy playing with a selection of superhero dolls. In the painting, Batman and Spiderman lie discarded in a bin; instead, the child clutches a new idol. A masked, uniformed nurse soars to the rescue, her cape fluttering and arm outstretched towards the sky.
The picture was accompanied by a note.
“Thanks for all you’re doing. I hope this brightens the place up a bit,
even if it’s only black and white.”
Having delighted staff and patients for the past ten months, Banksy’s gift to the hospital now comes to auction. Titled Game Changer, it will be sold to benefit the NHS—a reproduction will remain in its place. At a time when the world has come to rely more than ever on the bravery and resilience of its healthcare workers, the image of the boy and his new hero speaks to an unprecedented global zeitgeist. Equally, the scene’s quiet innocence captures the simple, universal values that have come to the fore during the pandemic—family, home and time spent with loved ones. Up until now, Game Changer has only been seen in person by frontline medical staff and those admitted for treatment: the auction marks its first public appearance outside the hospital.
Game Changer appeared at a time when people across the world rallied in support of frontline medical staff: from doorstep cheers and rounds of applause, to rainbows painted on household windows. The nurse’s red cross, the only hint of color in an otherwise monochrome composition, serves as a symbol of the pandemic’s international impact. This is technique widely used by Banksy in his oeuvre to emphasize a message.
At the same time, the image of the young boy at play is one of universal poignancy, capturing the renewed focus on domestic and familial life that has come to define this period. Intricately rendered in oil, with the expressive detail of a children’s book illustration, the work depicts a moment of pure innocence, charting the play of light and shadow across the boy’s face, hair and clothes.
Children have long featured in Banksy’s artworks—most famously his iconic Girl with Balloon, frequently functioning as cautionary symbols of damage to the next generation. Here, however, the child seems to look towards a brighter dawn, safe in the knowledge that real superheroes do walk among us.
Banksy began his career hiding from the eyes of the police as he graffitied his way around the UK: first in his native Bristol, and subsequently in London and beyond. His early freehand works gave way to his signature use of hand-cut stencils, inspired by observing the lettering on the underside of a bin lorry, where he had taken refuge from the police as a teenager.
At the same time, as demonstrated by Game Changer, he continued to paint freehand on canvas, working with precision and dexterity. The pandemic has not put a stop to Banksy’s graffiti work: in July 2020, he took to the London Underground, disguised as a cleaner, where he spray painted a series of rats encouraging people to wear face masks. In December, a new work entitled Aachoo—depicting a woman sneezing—appeared on the side of a house in Bristol.
In a time of rapid and unsteady change, Game Changer ultimately offers an image of hope. Irreverence, parody and calls to arms are absent: instead, it represents a personal tribute to those who continue to turn the tide of the pandemic. Its style is one of nostalgic purity, yet its message looks firmly towards to the future. As an artwork, however, it will remain forever a symbol of its time: a reminder of the world’s real game changers, and of the vital work they perform.
For their part, the staff at Southampton General is thrilled by Banksy‘s generosity, thanking the artist through Paula Head, CEO of the University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust.
“The fact that Banksy has chosen us to recognize the outstanding contribution everyone in and with the NHS is making, in unprecedented times, is a huge honor.”
“It will be really valued by everyone in the hospital, as people get a moment in their busy lives to pause, reflect, and appreciate this piece of art. It will no doubt also be a massive boost to morale for everyone who works and is cared for at our hospital.”