Reflecting on the portrait of Professor Wendy Burn CBE

Wendy BurnWe 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 Wendy Burn CBE, president 2017-2020
Date of interview: September 2022
Interviewer: Immanuel Rhema 
Transcriber: Peter Carpenter

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

Wendy Burn reflecting on the portrait

I remember the very first time I went to the College, sitting in the council room at the old Belgravia site, I saw all the portraits. Never in a million years did it come into my head: “Oh, it might be me one day”. I would have been really surprised if you’d told me that. I'd probably have fallen off my chair and run away.

'That's Wendy'

When choosing an artist, I'm not sure I could have put in words what I wanted, but I really liked Simon Wessely’s portrait because you looked at it and it's like being with Simon. Portraits can be very formal, can't they? Simon's was very informal. Simon talked to me about it, and said that he'd really enjoyed meeting Alastair and having it done. I liked Alastair’s backgrounds as well. In some of the portraits, it's just the person without really any background. I like a bit of background, that there's something else there beside the person. So I chose Alastair. I wanted people to look at my portrait and say: “That's Wendy.” I didn't want to look intimidating at all. I wanted to convey warmth. And that's difficult because people never smile for portraits. Alastair said: “You just can't because you can't keep the smile fixed for long enough.” But we managed a bit of a hint of a smile. 

Alastair took pictures, and I could see from them how it was going to turn out when he worked from life. The original background I wanted was the chandelier which came from the old College in Belgravia.  We spent a lot of time, with me standing in various places, and we couldn't get it in. So we gave up with the chandelier. 

An outward facing presidency

Alastair talked to me about my presidency. I really tried to get out and meet people and make the College more outward facing. So he had me by the window facing out, rather than within the College. I’m standing in the main entrance just to the left of the door. It's a clear window and you can see outside. You can see the blue College sign and three individuals walking past. I think Alastair has done an amazing job of showing movement. There's a traffic light on red: you'll have to ask him the significance of that. 

I talked to Alastair quite a lot about what I should have around my neck. The chain of office is worn on all sorts of formal occasions, and I was quite interested in wearing it for the portrait, but it didn’t really fit with the informal thing. In the end, we decided I’d have the chain worn rather informally, and also my lanyard. They show the two different sides of being president. The lanyard was the working me running the College; the chain of office the ceremonial side. I introduced the rainbow lanyard to Congress, which I was proud of. So it was important to me that it came into the portrait.

I spent a long time thinking about what I would wear, and I thought the initial meeting would just be talking. It turned into a sitting so the clothes that I'm wearing are the clothes I just happened to have on that day. I'd ironed the shirt rather badly: there's a president's flat that I was staying in and it didn't have an iron, so I’d bought this cheap one and it didn't really work so the shirt was all crumpled. I had to wear it for every sitting after that, making sure I didn't iron it too well. I did slightly worry about that, but Alastair said to me that was the bit of the painting he enjoyed most, painting the crumpled thing. 

'Time flew!'

I think we had four or five sittings, disrupted by the pandemic. We had one or two sittings before, then there was a big pause. Each sitting was two to three hours, something like that. Time flew! Alastair made me feel very relaxed. He didn't mind me speaking to people, so people would walk past and have a little chat and have a look. I think I only did one session standing up because standing up for two or three hours was quite hard. The rest of it, like my face and head, was done with me sitting, which made it easier. There were bits when he'd say, “Right, you need to keep absolutely still”, or “Get your mouth how you want it to be and then keep it like that.”

He's such a nice man and so easy to talk to and very interesting. He talked a bit about portraits, his thoughts on how he portrays people, who he finds interesting to paint and who he doesn't, and what are the best bits. We didn't really talk about psychiatry. We talked more about life. 

I thought it would be a horrible experience, but it was a nice one.

Alastair Adams reflecting on the portrait

My portraits are flagging where the sitters currently are. As with my Blair portrait, the “No Surrender” one. It's kind of: What's next?  

Wendy’s portrait was tricky because lockdown came along and changed everything. The sittings were quite fragmented and over an awfully long time, and when you got back to it, you were looking to try and find some new kind of context.  

A contemporary College

I liked the idea of Wendy looking out on the street with natural lighting. I like having graphics in the background and I like playing around with different surfaces and layers because they're the contemporary materials that reflect modern institutions. I think back to leather chairs and wood panelling; they're great surfaces to paint, but they really can date the subject you're painting. As a result, people kind of look at the portrait and go: “It's one of those portraits”, and it sort of then gets joined with reinforcing some sort of hierarchy, the kind of thing whereby these people look down on you and you look up at them. But when you're bringing in the street and you're bringing in this glass and these graphics and things like that, it's very much more the contemporary surfaces of institutions. The Royal College of Psychiatrists is quite out facing so it's joined with the people on the street. And the characters ended up turning up with masks on, so it was like: OK, well that's part of where we’re at now. So that of course had to go in. 

What I quite like doing is to put the hard and the soft together: you've got the hard of the graphics and the lines and the layering in the background. You've also got the light falling on the surfaces, of Wendy’s hands and her face and her top as well. 

The person inside

I like painting shirts because it's the person inside something. Clothes are good because they reflect the character of the person. Sometimes I've done portraits of people in the military and there's an awful lot of putting the tunic down and straightening the buttons and all of those kinds of things: you could be as straight laced and professional as you like. You still gotta stick a human in the uniform and it's going to start creasing and offending someone.

Wendy’s wearing the chain: you've got a woman wearing the traditional symbol. I’m quite often faced with this in my portraits. Does the chain make you look dated or old school, or does it reinvent the hierarchy, which says: actually the hierarchy has got women in it. That is quite a strong statement to be making. Gosh, when you think about diversity, it's enough in portraits for diversity of the subjects to be a woman, rather than just a white man. I think what you want to do is really embrace it and say, OK, this is the new tradition with a woman in the role. 

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