Reflecting on the portrait of Professor Dame Sue Bailey

Professor Dame Sue BaileyWe 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 Sue Bailey, president 2011-2014
Date of Interview: 
January 2023
Interviewer and Transcriber: 
Immanuel Rhema

Artist: Keith Breeden
Date of interview: March 2023
Catriona Grant and Claire Hilton
Claire Hilton

Sue Bailey reflecting on the portrait

Becoming President

I am a forensic psychiatrist specialising in child and adolescent mental health. Because I looked after a population that most people didn’t like as patients, I realised the importance of policy and helping to get policy shaped by evidence to bring them what they so desperately needed. Delving into policy led me to multiple roles in the College. The best role in the College for myself was being Registrar: you had your hands on everything, but finally I was elected as President. Being President was a huge, huge privilege.

An important milestone during my presidency was the day we were allowed into Parliament when the Health and Social Care Act (2012) was passed, giving psychiatry “parity of esteem”: being able to see it actually happen in Parliament, and then being able to stand outside together with users and carers, was a moment I shall never forget. It was just absolutely amazing.

I chose the artist Keith Breeden, because he had captured Sheila [Hollins] so well. But I kept avoiding having the portrait done. I’d use any excuse! Can I have a photograph? Can I have a bronze? Can I do anything but a portrait because I don’t even like having my photo taken!? I think that’s something to do with me being a forensic practitioner. I’m a private and careful person because of the work I do. 

Keith was fantastic because I wasn’t comfortable sitting for the portrait, but he gradually enabled me to do my best. He even managed to get me to make eye contact with him. One of my annual chores was going to the local special hospital to interview lifers. Something you learned to do in those interviews was not to make direct eye contact. You were not in a therapy situation, you were doing a job. It was almost part of the safety rule.

Remembering Hong Kong

The blouse I wore was of importance to me because it represented the time I spent in Hong Kong. My family has a lot of contact with Hong Kong, and with Chinese art and artists.  The jewellery was because Wendy [Burn] said: “Oh, get the flash on!” I’ve always admired creatives. I’m hopeless: I can’t make a thing, I can’t paint. The jewellery is layers of composite, layers on layers, so it is very intricate and very time consuming to make. I guess that that was the similarity between the jeweller and Keith, this business of putting layer and layer, whether it is paint or colour, onto what they’re making. Laying on colour, making the jewellery and Keith’s work, both managed to produce that iridescence. 


There’s something on the portrait that’s written on it as well as the years that I was President. Although I spent a lot of my working life in London, in my policy roles, I never moved from Manchester. Keith never told me he was doing those letters so it was a surprise when I saw the portrait, with “MANCHESTER” across the bottom of it. I think that was a very caring thing to do. It’s a bonus that most people don’t even notice.

Portraits are moments in time of the individual, of the College and, in some ways, of broader society. For me, the “moment” was me finally saying, “I am a person, and it’s okay. I am me. I guess I’ve done something worthwhile.”

I was an absolute nightmare for Keith. I owe him a mega apology… This interview is an opportunity to say thank you to him for what he has done, because he did capture me. To be honest, when we finished, I actually missed the ritual of the sittings.

Keith Breeden reflecting on the portrait

I was looking at the portrait this morning. I’ve got it on my computer, and I looked at it. I always felt with Sue that I just didn't get her right, but when I looked at it really close in, and her eyes, I did get her. 

Sue was great. She was very generous with her time and she sat there religiously, but she did not relax. I'd be surprised if Sue ever relaxes to be quite honest, she's just not that sort of person. If you're a forensic psychiatrist, you might be wary of letting patients into your life. I think I let people in all the time!  A way to get people to relax and open up, is to give of myself. Do you know what I mean? I'm saying something about myself, which probably people wouldn't expect me to say. Opening up about myself, I find that they will respond to it. Some people just won't open up, where some people will tell you more than you really want to know. I'm the same whether it's a sitter or a friend down the pub. I'm just talking to them, you know.

'It's shining at you'

And we talked about the necklace, and we talked about the blouse she was wearing and how will you pose and everything. What people wear is not down to me, but I would say that women are more concerned about what they wear. Women will say: “I've got these three outfits…” and men just turn up and I say: “Yeah, that's fine” and off we go. Sue probably showed me a few different things she could wear, but she really wanted to wear that blouse. It's shiny. I found it really difficult to paint and that's one of the things I think I didn't get right, the nature of that blouse. It's shining at you, you can't see her! And all these little things…the big baubles…distract from her! 

I always talk about what I'm doing and especially if I’m having difficulties or anything. I'll explain, I'm struggling with this or struggling with that. And I talked about all this with Sue when we were working. Sue was really difficult to get to come out. I talked about it with her, and I think she understood what was going on, but she couldn't do anything about it, if you see what I mean. 

Peeling back the layers

I have a lot of respect for Sue, the way she does things and the way she is, but there was a distance to her, you know. I always remember saying to her that she was one of the most difficult people I've ever painted, to see through, to see into, and I talked to her quite a bit about it and I think it's the nature of her work. My understanding of what she specialised in, you know, young people who’d done awful things (obviously she wouldn't tell me anything particular about it) but you get the feeling that she had built up some sort of persona that was divorced from the “now” and I think that was part of her.

She was slightly back from herself. And that for a portrait painter is really difficult because you have to get the person without any filters. You can't have somebody showing you somebody they think they want to appear as. That forensic psychiatry stuff is the answer to it. It's like she wouldn't be indiscreet about herself, like everything was behind a filter. Well, multiple filters on her life. As a portrait painter, you have to have the real person sitting in front of you, and it’s much harder to get that with some people. 

Sue’s a very big family person. We talked a lot about her family She was telling me plenty about that. She lives in a modest house in Manchester (I painted her there) and she's very Manchester. She's got a quite a thick accent really. In some ways, maybe the numbers and words are distracting, from looking too closely at her, but that's Sue, isn't it? 
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