Reflecting on the portrait of Professor Dame Fiona Caldicott

Dame Fiona CaldicottWe join many other medical Royal Colleges in displaying portraits of past presidents; a mark of esteem of their leadership of their professional organisation.A recent project sought to better understand our portraits by speaking to the sitters and the artists. 

Professor Dame Fiona Caldicott, president 1993-1996
Professor Caldicott died in February 2021, so unfortunately we were unable to interview her as part of this project.

Interview date: November 2022
Interviewer and transcriber: Catriona Grant

Susannah Fiennes reflecting on the portrait

“A likeness is not ‘captured’- it is constructed by acute observation of woven shapes of contrasting tones, temperatures and saturations.”
From a lecture by Susannah on Rembrandt’s portraiture.

When I'm starting a picture, I usually don't interfere too much; I like people not to think that I'm even there. In that stage I'll just be watching how they present themselves, and usually that happens quite naturally. And that's a totally natural pose, isn't it? 

An extra dimension

I chatter because it helps sort of ease them if I'm just chattering away and painting away. I remember those early questions. Maybe she mentioned her husband or something. Somehow the subject, very quickly, came onto family, and she told me that her son had been killed in a car crash. I remember being almost frozen in shock. It was such an enormous piece of information to hear in our first session. It hung over me as an extra dimension to her. And how do you use that information? I didn't want it to become a sad painting as a result. And yet it inevitably was going to influence me. She laid it out there. It was so brave of her. I guess there was no way she could have kept it quiet. But it was an enormous responsibility to handle it, and I felt I had to tread very carefully with it. I would say it was the defining fact of doing that portrait. I didn't reveal too much, and at same time, I didn't conceal it. 

An acrobatic process

The challenge is to keep the sitter animated but also still. To be able to hold a conversation with someone when you're trying to measure the distance between her eyelash and her nostril, it's so difficult. The best you do is throw out some questions and hope that they'll answer them, and while they're answering, you're calculating that distance. And you do a sort of acrobatic thing in your mind. Trying to keep them engaged, but still make your calculations. 

How do you give an expression that is animated? It’s the ultimate challenge. I think her expression is serious, isn't it? But there's a definite sense that she might be about to smile. Painting isn't just about copying a subject. It helps to be able to know how to do that, but it's about how you can generate an emotional connection through the painting.

I would have done about eight sessions with her. And I was very conscious right from the start that she was a very busy person. Time was precious, there was an urgency about it. There wasn't a lot of small talk or hanging about. We were very decisive. 

Sympathetic colours

Red is a dynamic, strong colour: she's a woman of distinction, you know. It just seemed the right choice. And that must have been the colour of her study at Somerville in Oxford, that kind of peachy copper colour. I must have thought: the red had a kind of relationship to that, it was sympathetic, it wasn't going to fight, they had something in common, rather than being opposite ends of the spectrum. So, that would have been part of the decision-making, what the background was doing.

It's a really nice colour composition because you've got the primary colours: you've got the strong red, and then you've got that flash of yellow, which is almost in the centre of the painting. Then a flowery scarf with a white background, and then you've also got the blue, so you've got the primary colours red, yellow and blue right there distilled. And very saturated, and it's so strong, juxtaposed against the white of the scarf. 

'Think of a painting in a key'

If you think of a painting in a key, it's like a piece of music. It has a key, and this is a hot red key and that's the dominant quality of the colour key. Then you've got the less dominant rusty colour behind, and the hint of the red jacket disappearing behind the chair. And you've got the wood. The colour of the wood is warm, speaking to the red. It's in the same family of colours. If you think of colours as having relationships, just as in a family, reds and browns have something in common. So, you think of them as a harmony. 

By contrast, you’ve got the family of blues, the more subdued dark blue of the skirt, the blue on the scarf. And then you've got the black: she had very dark hair. 

So, this picture is a balancing act of those families of colours. You don't want to rush into the painting until you're absolutely sure that you like the harmony of the colours.

The currency of eye contact

Some people look over into the distance. She's making eye contact. I suspect that eye contact would have a lot more currency for her as a psychiatrist than it would for most people. She'd be wanting that with her patients I’m guessing. 

And notice, she's got jewellery on. The brooch, the buttons on the blazer, a few rings and a bracelet. It's all quite decorative—and earrings—she’s definitely conscious of being dressed up.

Painting Fiona was an amazing privilege. It’s always such a privilege to spend time with someone. I think I delivered a professional job to a very professional person. One might expect a psychiatrist to evaluate a picture slightly differently from a non-psychiatrist: they might bring another dimension to it. I'd be quite interested to throw it back at the psychiatrists and see what you get, and certainly, open it to people who knew Fiona. And it would have been so interesting to hear from Fiona: arguably, a psychiatrist is used to being in the driving seat, and suddenly she was the recipient of this inquiry. And I would love to have heard her thoughts on that. 
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