Reflecting on the portrait of Professor Sir Simon Wessely

Professor Sir Simon WessleyWe 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 Sir Simon Wessely, president 2014–2017
Interview date: October 2022
Interviewers: Immanuel Rhema and Oliver Evelyn-Rahr
Transcriber: Peter Carpenter

Date of interview: October 2022
Interviewer: Oliver Evelyn-Rahr 
Transcriber: Peter Carpenter

Simon Wessely reflecting on the portrait

I had a really good time here in this building and then I went on and did the review of the Mental Health Act that took me right back to where I started, which was schizophrenia, which I had moved away from for two decades. Ultimately, psychiatry is about the treatment of severe mental illness. It's not just that, but that is a very important part of it. 

The two things that I said to Alastair that I wanted for the painting were: I wanted it to be here—at Prescot Street —because I'd been president here. It was the first portrait to be painted in the new building. I also said I'd like it to be in the library. Books have always been very important in my life, and I think in the life of psychiatry. In psychiatry, it's expected that you're well read. 

We had six sittings, each for at least an hour, but I think he also took photos. 

Stories from the library

The books behind me in the portrait are all genuine books from the library, but they do tell a story. Each book is there for a reason. There's one on the history of shell shock in France. There are some on neurasthenia, because I've done a lot of work on chronic fatigue, and that was the early picture on it.  Hidden in there is NHS SOS which is a little bit of a tribute to my wife.  In the top right-hand corner there's the book How to Deal with Difficult People.  That’s because I've been a university professor and head of department and vice dean and how to deal with difficult people is my job. 

I'm also not wearing a tie because I don't normally wear one. I only wear a tie when I'm with patients or judges or with the military. The military don't like it if you don't: I got told off for not wearing one. 


I don't think there is anything I would change about the portrait. He even got my posture, because I'm always told to sit up straight, and I am a great one for lolling. I am definitely lolling. I think it's better than a photo because it's cleverer, it's more in depth. I mean, if it had been a photo, I would not be so stupid as to have left my phone and iPad there. I might have put it away as you do when you know you're getting your picture taken. They became Alastair’s joke: we did the sittings and Alastair is very, very good. He talks to you but also, I'm busy as the president and doing a job at the university, so he's making the point that I would spend quite a time on other things. I would take a call, and people came down, and Alastair would say ‘Don't move your hands, don't move your hands’ if he's doing hands. So I didn't pose with an iPad and a phone, but I would always have them around. Everybody who knows me knows that. 

When he unveiled the portrait, there was the usual light applause and then people started to look at it properly, and they all started to laugh, because they'd seen the iPad and phone, and they know what I do. They know I’m dreadful for that. But putting them in the portrait was a surprise to me!  He's absolutely right of course! After seeing the portrait I was more careful when I used my iPad and phone.  

I'm genuinely very pleased with the portrait. I think it's witty and quite funny. I think Alastair has done a fantastic job.  I'm very pleased I met Alastair and we stay in touch.  He’s clearly highly regarded by his peers and is very well known, obviously: he did three Tony Blairs, didn't he?

Alastair Adams reflecting on the portrait

I don't come from a fine art background. I come from a background which is about communicating with people, communicating ideas to people about something. I use a language that people can understand. Common themes around my portraits are body language and the expressive content, because you learn those as you grow up.

So Simon was my brief. As an illustrator I would be looking to try and find out how I tell somebody about him and that's why this is quite a contrived thing. I don't usually just walk in and start painting because I need to know a bit more about them in the first instance, so I can work out what I want to say and what's appropriate to say. 

I always go and work with people from life. I like to use photos at the outset, because people can understand them. They might ask: ‘is my hair going to be like that?’ or ‘what's that bit there?’ So it's a very quick way in the initial stages of exploring options. The master photo is a starting point. If they move or change during the sittings you can paint things out, but the photo gives the tone of voice, and then you start to bolt stuff on and build stuff on. 

Simon would come in on his bike, and he'd be on his way to somewhere else too. I was really pleased that Simon prioritised spending so much time sitting for the portrait, which I think reflects (a) his dedication to the arts, because he knows that means something, and (b) he wanted to do a decent job for the world that he'd been in. 

I like painting shirts because it's the person inside something. So clothes are good because they reflect the character of the person, and they're a very human thing. As for the books, they were all in the library and none were added afterwards. I like to play the ball from where it lands. 

A slice of life

When I work with people, I’m realistic, because they may need to answer their phone or take care of something. It's a slice of life, so it's them in motion. I don't have a problem with that. When he sat, he had a phone in his hand and an iPad. I understand that the observation I made, and brought to the fore in the painting, about his iPad and phone, influenced his future behaviour. That is really interesting to hear, because it's a classic example of how things feed back into -what comes next in the sitter’s life. The ironic thing is that the people who were at the unveiling had probably been on the other end of the WhatsApp that's going on that mobile phone there. 

Somebody said the other day that they like my portraits, because people always look happy, or they're smiling. It's not the done thing [as to hold a smile for a long time turns it into a grimace] but I tend to find that that's what they do with me. Maybe it's because that's how I make them feel and they reflect that back.
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