Reflecting on the portrait of Professor Andrew Sims

Professor Andrew SimsWe 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. 

Professor Andrew Sims, president 1990-1993
Date of interview: online interview with his son, Dr David Sims, November 2022, with recording approved by Andrew.

Interviewer and transcriber: Claire Hilton 

Artist: Michael Noakes (1933-2018)
Michael Noakes died in 2018. For more about Michael Noakes see his obituary by Beatrice Bowles-Bray, Guardian, 13 June 2018

David Sims reflecting on the portrait

Dad’s parents were both GPs. His dad was away from home quite a lot during the war, and his mother was a force of nature. After the war, his dad was doing a home visit for a bedbound patient who lived upstairs and went up to see him and put his head round the door and said: “Hello, it's Dr Sims here” to which the patient said: “That may be Dr Sims but it is not my Dr Sims, she comes upstairs two at a time!” 

The family was part of the Plymouth Brethren, independently minded within the Christian faith and in all sorts of other ways. He grew up imbibing that independence of mind.

Promoting equality

Throughout his career he was very much somebody who promoted equality. That was probably one of the things that drove him within his academic career, and within the College, promoting equal opportunities within psychiatry and for psychiatry as a branch of medicine. It’s about: that the best possible psychiatrists do the best possible for the people with whom they work, for their patients, in their language. 

From the early ‘80s he took on roles for the College around the world. He was very good at connecting with people, and I think that's what helped him in terms of being able to pitch up in any part of the world and start working fairly quickly. 

He was very much a psychiatrist of all the senses. His book Symptoms in the Mind is about using the observational side that we have, to really understand the individual in front of us, the individual within a context. He was always absolutely delighted when trainees would come to him and tell him how they had photocopied his book, and would show him the illegal photocopies. And he would love to sign them. For him, it was always about getting the ideas out rather than any sense of royalties.

Founding the Spiritualty SIG

He made a very strong connection with Michael (Mike) Noakes, the artist, and some of what they developed in conversation was helping dad to think about what he was going to do next within the College, and led to him being part of setting up the Spirituality and Psychiatry Special Interest Group. The more they talked, the more Mike understood that my dad was a sort of steely character—that is the word that's been used to me by my parents….Once he gets something he wants to do, he will stick it out and he will be very stubborn about getting that to happen, but with a gentle and quite charming ability. That is very much the sort of sense about the portrait, it has very much got his determination to make things happen. 

He was always smart for work. He wore that tie, probably on and off, for over 35 years. A suit, but it wasn't going to be a suit that was making too much of a statement. His statement is in the listening mode rather than in the clothes. The hint of a smile doesn't pick up just how humorous he could be, but it's something of the message: it's warm and it's a smile, and it's welcoming which he very much liked as the message.

In some ways it was a bit of a chore for dad to have the portrait painted. Part of dad's approach to life was quite self-deprecating, and then getting something that's this big about him, had its moments of amusement for the whole family. He takes a quiet pride in it, but he would never have been somebody who would have demonstrated pride in his achievements in that sort of way. 

The psychiatrist is listening

The portrait gave him confidence to be himself more in the public sphere. He's not really able to say exactly how much the portrait contributed to it, but it's certainly part of ongoing conversations within the family. 

Dad always felt that it caught something of the essence of him, and particularly that it picked up the listening. He's definitely listening, but it's definitely the other person he is listening to who's the really important one. There is a sort of message back to ourselves rather than promoting himself in the picture. I think he's promoting each of us to be the best we can. 

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