Reflecting on the portrait of Dr Mike Shooter

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

Dr Mike Shooter, president 2002-2005
Date of Interview: November 2022
Interviewer and transcriber: Thana Balamurali 

Date of Interview: December 2022
Interviewer and transcriber: Thana Balamurali 

Mike Shooter reflecting on the portrait

I read history at Cambridge as part of my degree and then law, never intending to be either a historian or a lawyer because I already had a job as newspaper reporter. 

My wife was in her first year at college when I was in my last. One evening we decided that I should have a proper job and started making lists of pros and cons, and medicine came out top, largely because neither of us knew anything about it. I didn't even have science A levels, so I had to go right back to the beginning. 

In my final year of training, I got my first thundering depression and was treated enormously well by a lot of people who were to subsequently become my colleagues. It took a year and a half out of my life. The only bit of training I hadn't done was psychiatry. It was a beautiful summer and I used cycle out to Fulbourn Hospital, and I thought: this is what I could do with the rest of my life. 

The College in Wales

As a senior registrar in Wales, I started to be dragged into the echelons of the Royal College. The Welsh Division sent me up to College meetings as the Welsh representative. I became the first College public education officer, and, still having my newspaper reporter hat on, I revelled in doing that. I loved talking to newspapers and being interviewed on air and so on. 

The thing that that taught me most about how to be with patients, how to get inside patients and talk to them and learn about them was being a newspaper reporter. I think we forget at our peril that stories are our most important vehicle. Everybody has a story. Patients come to us with a story, often which they've been holding on to for years, for fear of telling it to anybody. And it's our job to gradually allow them in the safety of sessions, to begin to recite that story and eventually, hopefully, to change the end of it for them. As a child psychiatrist, I've always used nonverbal things to help, and they are enormously helpful, especially artwork. 

I went to the National Portrait Gallery and saw a portrait of Michael Frayn, the author and playwright, by Jennifer McRae, and I thought: that's the person I would like to do my portrait. I hoped that by her visiting us down in Wales, seeing me in my natural habitat, that some of my background, not just my career background, would come into the portrait. 

'A sixth sense'

I'm vain enough to have loved having my portrait painted. There was a sort of sixth sense with Jenny and me. She picked the things about me that I wanted to be portrayed without even knowing that I wanted to them to be portrayed. 

At first the painting sessions became a sort of escape from the pressures of the College, politics and appearing on the public platform. I could just be by myself alone with this artist. In the end, I think she got into my soul. I felt better for having been through the process, which I hadn't really wanted to do. It was cathartic. It enabled me to cope better with some things, in the sense that I found a strength inside myself. 

The hill you see behind me is the Skirrid, a magical mountain. My daughter got married on top of it. I've climbed it hundreds of times. You also see a small child looking up towards the mountain. I think that represents a child looking at the immensity of what she had to climb, but with some magic in this magic mountain, I might help her to climb out of the horror of whatever it was that she was in. I didn't guide Jenny to that. She just came up with it. She knew I was the first child psychiatrist to be president of the College. 

I've worn a pocket handkerchief ever since I was a young man. One hand is near my face: I'm a natural user of hands. I use my hands a lot. I can't stay still on a stage. I wander around and gesticulate and so on. (If you're not a natural user of hands then keep them out of the way, because every now and again, if you're not careful, they kind of float up and into the picture as if you're doing dreadful things down below that the viewer is not entitled to see.)

The importance of kindness

The deepest thing I hope that comes across from the portrait is being kindly. I think kindness is one of the most important commodities that we should possess. And in the process of being painted, I discovered some kindness in myself. It just emerged in that process, whereas before, perhaps I had been a fighter and a bit harsh, a bit cynical, a bit loud. 

I think colleagues were inspired that a child psychiatrist, up from the sticks, who has a long history of psychiatric problems of his own, could become president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. I hope they see in that portrait the person I was when I stood up and talked about my own psychiatric problems in the hope that it would inspire medical colleagues of any sort to share their problems. 

If a prospective patient looked at that painting, I hope it would alleviate some of their anxieties about psychiatry. I hope it looks like a kind person and a wise person, and somebody who they can trust. 

Jennifer McRae reflecting on the portrait

I was born down south, started my education in London and then moved up to Scotland and lost my English accent very quickly to survive the playground. There’s a thing in Scotland where you kind of feel a bit of a fraud if you're not “born and bred”, as they say. So I've always felt like a slight impostor there and then when I'm down south, everyone thinks I'm Scottish. That feeling of a slight outsider has been very beneficial because being a portrait artist is a very observational job. You're kind of outside looking in. 

An observational profession

I hadn't painted a psychiatrist before, but psychiatry seems to me a very observational profession. I think it deals with a very delicate side of human beings and there is an element of that in portraiture. Mike said that psychiatrists and artists bridge the internal and external worlds. I talk about my sort of openness to anything, or vagueness, or just allowing things to happen. I would imagine there's an element of that in psychiatry, as well as your training. It's funny because the artist is, I think, trying to get out of the way of the person, but inevitably the artist is making the painting so that the interesting part is, that the painting is the artist’s, and yet it came about because of the person outside of them.

When I met Mike, I remember thinking he was a very gentle big guy. He sat very comfortably in the chair. He had a very sort of easy way, but I also felt that part of it was that he was interested, wondering how it was going to work. His curiosity overran any kind of self-conscious thing that some people have.

When I paint a portrait, it's always oil on linen, and it's always on a really, really fine smooth Belgian white linen. That’s a really important part of it for me. I never go straight on with paint, but always draw the person quite meticulously and with a very sharp pencil. 

A jigsaw puzzle

The compositions are not done in a realistic way, as in perspective. It's more like a jigsaw puzzle. I'm using elements. I take things that are real, but I will rearrange everything in a structure that I want. I like to invent the structure because I'm not inventing the person. A lot of the thought about the background would have been in my studio when Mike wasn't there. I borrowed his coat once: that tweedy stuff is actually his coat hanging over the chair. Behind Mike, rather than the window, is a panel of lightwood. I think it’s where he was sitting. I used it because of his features: his skin tone is quite delicate, and I didn't want anything really dominating him in the picture. 

I wanted to somehow reveal his work without showing a big poster of a brain or something. I wanted people to know that he was a children's psychiatrist. I wanted people to know that children need that. We went to stay with him and his wife in Wales, and there was a view of this fabulous mountain which I thought I really wanted in the painting.  And then I used my own granddaughter in the background because I wanted a child looking at the mountain. 

I hope that a viewer would pick up on his gentleness and his sensitivity. I think he's quite a strong guy as well. I mean, I don't think he'd suffer fools gladly. I hope that comes across in the portrait. 

Funnily enough. I was seeing some people about a portrait not very long ago, and they were saying: “So what's your set way?” And I thought, and just said: “There isn't one.” There isn't one, because everybody, as you will know, is completely different. 

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