Reflecting on the portrait of Dr Adrian James

Dr Adrian James portrait paintingWe join many other medical Royal Colleges in displaying portraits of past presidents; a mark of esteem of their leadership of their professional organisation. recent project sought to better understand our portraits by speaking to the sitters and the artists. 

Dr Adrian James, president 2020-2023
Date of Interview:
July 2023
Interviewer and Transcriber:
Tom Stephenson

Artist: Alastair Adams
Date of interview:
June 2023
and Transcriber: Catriona Grant 

Adrian James reflecting on the portrait

My interest in the mind started with my psychiatry placement as a medical student at Guy's Hospital. The psychiatrists were interesting people, enthusiastic about their work. They seemed to have great ability to form a rapport with their patients and with the medical students, and you felt that you were part of the team. In those days, a medical student could do a locum at SHO level. You couldn't sign a prescription, but you could write it and somebody else signed it. So, I did a week of psychiatry at Guy’s. And again, I really loved it.


I’ve been incredibly privileged in my career. The biggest privilege is being able to see patients. As a forensic psychiatrist, the greatest success is when you have a patient who comes in who is often angry, upset, sometimes quite hostile, and you manage to turn that round, so they’re able to leave hospital and get on with their life. For services, as for patients, we have to say: “Okay, how can we get from this position to that?”

I’ve had College positions for about 25 years. Anything I've done has always been a joint effort, including building an alliance with partner organisations. You have to paint a vision to say “You give us this money, it won't disappear down a bottomless pit. We can do something with it”. 

'Pandemic President'

I found out I was going to be President about 9th January 2020. The first case of COVID-19 came to the UK on the 20 somethingth of January. I was the “pandemic President”, and so, as a portrait is a historical record, it should say something about what was going on. I chaired meetings from home and was entirely online for whole chunks of my Presidency. So, I asked the College officers about the portrait being done at home. They thought it was a great idea and that the members would like it because the pandemic was a shared experience. Future generations would look at it and say: “What's going on there? This is all very different”. The portrait is dramatically different from the others, and rightly so, because life was dramatically different.

I was so impressed with the portraits of Simon Wessely and Wendy Burn, I thought it would be nice to go with the same artist. I'd never thought about having a portrait done, and didn't know how it operated. The first time the artist, Alastair, came to my house, we just chatted. I thought we were just saying hello and getting to know each other, but he was observing me, my posture, who I was, my demeanour, in the same way that you or I would do as a psychiatrist. So, I’d found somebody else who wasn't a psychiatrist, doing the sorts of things that psychiatrists do, which was interesting.

A serious person

I look very serious. Well, I am a serious person. Alastair said that he felt there was enough within the rest of the portrait that showed a humorous side so it was important that I did look serious. I’m wearing Crocs. Once, when I was chatting to Alastair, he said: “What about putting those on?” I thought, well, if that's what he wants, great. And, of course, in terms of my commitment to equality and diversity it is rather nice…

During the pandemic, I thought, when you were online it seemed a bit silly to be wearing a suit and tie, but you wanted to show that you've made a bit of an effort, and you needed to be identified, so I wore my College top. None of the other Royal College Presidents wore a College crested polo shirt. I wore pyjama bottoms pretty well all the time. I said to Alastair, “Maybe we should have a little bit of pyjama just as a bit of intrigue”. He rather liked the idea, but there is probably a bit more than I’d expected. Fabulously painted, I have to say.

You can't have your portrait done with your wife, but in the background there's a tandem. We bought a tandem when we were students, and we've had three. It brings that relationship into it, which I think is really important. 

Alastair Adams reflecting on the portrait

Adrian was President during lockdown, leading the College from home. I've only ever seen him in brightly coloured trousers and crocs and a relatively straight T-shirt, which I'm assuming is purely because that's the bit above the waist that you can see on camera. I've never seen him wear a suit, but he doesn't need to be wearing a suit or the chain or the robes or whatever to show that he’s President. I don't really like portraits that reinforce hierarchies. If you dress people in a certain way, it bars others from recognising that they too could be in that situation themselves. From a diversity and inclusivity perspective, I think it's important that people are able to be themselves. 

Kinetic aspects

The most sittings I'll ever do is about five because I think after that point it just gets wearing. But I do use photographs as well because it wouldn't be right for me to say ‘It's going to take two days to paint your pyjama bottoms. Can you just sit there for two days, please and not move?’ It's just not realistic. Like using a microscope, a camera allows you to see in detail what you can't see with the naked eye, so it allows me to capture surfaces and to compose different elements and bring them together in one. So, a traditional painter would say ‘My eye is the lens’. I say, ‘Well, my eye is the lens, but so is my camera, because it allows me to tell the stories that I couldn't tell just from direct one-to-one sittings.’ Sometimes I've videoed people. There are kinetic aspects to their personality and their body language, and I kind of really like to be able to capture those. So that's what I do and that's how I defend the fact that I don't purely paint from life, which is seen by some as being taboo.


I can't paint a person's character, because that’s not a tangible thing. All you can do is look at the outside and analyse it and make suggestions and triangulate on what that character might be from external identifiers. I feel a bit boring sometimes because when I'm looking and working, I'm thinking about what I'm doing, and can't necessarily be entertaining. It helps if I hang around with people that are much more intelligent than me because it usually means they've got all the conversation and I just get to listen to what they have to say whilst I get on with the job. It's great that sitters can trust me and tell me things. I'm good at looking at things and recording them, but I've got absolutely no memory. So, you might as well tell a goldfish. It goes in one ear and straight out. I feel very privileged. But it is a bit like being a butler. You sort of see it all and don’t say anything, you know.

I believe in a portrait’s ability to be able to communicate ideas to people in a very immediate fashion. You wouldn't believe the stories that come out because a portrait is acting as a touchstone for people to cluster around and tell you about their experiences. Its brilliant that a portrait is able to initiate that dialogue. That’s why they're important. They're not just for people with stuffed shirts.

The case for portraiture

In this day and age, people ask why we have any portraits done as (a) they're not relevant anymore, which obviously is not the case, and (b) they're expensive. So, what I try and do with my work is to get it to justify itself by saying: if you value people and you value insight, this thing is going to do an awful lot for your institution in terms of what you're trying to say about how you look at people, invest in people, and are interested in what's going on inside. I like to think that's why I've got three portraits here, though my wife said to me, ‘Perhaps you're not trying to help them. They're doing you a favour by giving you access to psychiatrists!’

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