Reflecting on the portrait of Vanessa Cameron

We join many other medical Royal Colleges in displaying portraits to celebrate those who have provided leadership to their professional organisation.A recent project sought to better understand our portraits by speaking to the sitters and the artists. 

Portrait of Vanessa Cameron, Secretary/CEO RCPsych 1984-2016 
Date of interview: October 2022 
Interviewer and transcriber: Claire Hilton

Artist: James Lloyd
Date of interview: October 2022 
Interviewer and transcriber: Catriona Grant

Vanessa Cameron reflecting on the portrait

My father was in the Navy, and I was brought up in Hampshire because that's where all the Navy places are, near Portsmouth. When I was 17, I started displaying early signs of bipolar. I was unwell for a couple of years and then I got better, and I got a job working in an Oxford college. 

I wanted a job in London, and I went to a head-hunter and a job at the College came up. I have to say I didn't have an interest in psychiatry at the time. I hadn't been ill for many years. I thought it was all behind me. I wanted to work at the College because (a) I got a secretary, which I'd never had before, and (b) my salary was £9000 which was considerably more than I was getting in Oxford. So these were my rather dreadful reasons for coming to the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

Adapting to change

It was a very interesting time for psychiatry because community care was being introduced and the “asylums” were being closed. The government was saying it would be cheaper, but it obviously wasn't. Some older psychiatrists were really concerned about their patients.  But it was an unstoppable development and College members had to adapt.  

So the other thing that developed during my time was to get the public on our side. Back in the ‘80s, the College was gradually moving towards embracing users, carers, patients.  It's such a different climate today.

About the portrait: I was extremely touched because, you know, the portraits had been done for presidents and I wasn't expecting it. 

Symbols of a career

James Lloyd and I met initially, and we talked about it. I wanted something in Prescot Street, and I wanted my office because I loved the shape of the window. It was James who suggested that the things on the window ledge should be in the portrait, the exotic orchid on the windowsill, various presents from overseas visits, a blue glass pear that comes from the Society of Apothecaries. They're not symbolic because they're real, but if I had to say what they were symbolic of, it would be my career in the College. 

I'm the kind of person that never ever likes a photograph of myself. I don't know whether that's because I'm really vain. I said to James, is it alright to wear red? Because red is quite, you know, quite a bright colour, and he said “Absolutely”. I like the colour of the dress. It reminds me of, I think, Francis Bacon’s “The Cardinal”, not that I'm the cardinal but, you know, it's a statement. I certainly wouldn't have worn a blue dress.

The artist's creation

I went to his studio to have it painted, four or five times. It was fascinating to see the portraits of other people and his works of art. We didn't really discuss very deep philosophical things, as some presidents did. Some of them had quite an intense relationship with the person who did their portrait   We discussed a bit about politics and day-to-day things. It was quite strange having your portrait painted. You wanted to get up and have a look at it the whole time, and you couldn’t say: “Well I hate this!” or “I don't like this!”. It was his creation. It was difficult, somebody’s creation was based on you. 

It looks to me as if I am sitting back observing, which is something I often did in the College. I'm not convinced that the expression on my face is me, but the more I see the portrait, the more I like it. 

The view is fantastic—with the painted concrete wall façade and then the red brick and the slate and the chimneys. It's got a sort of Mary Poppins feel to it.  

'Endurance and continuity'

I think what I wanted the portrait to “say” was that when I came to the College, it was in an old-fashioned, 19th century Belgravia building, and we moved into the Prescot Street building so the future was secure. The building is very important to me. It’s a safe place for the College to be. It's owned by the College. It's not got a mortgage. It's in a good area. Belgravia, you know, was not a great area from the point of view of public perception. You don't want to be in these swanky areas. I think the portrait shows some kind of endurance and continuity and coming out the other end, smiling, after a long period of time. And also having been treated very well by the College.

James Lloyd reflecting on the portrait

I did a degree in Coventry, then I came to London to the Slade. I was always painting people, but not necessarily portraits exactly. But the last painting I did at the Slade was of my girlfriend, now wife, which then went on to win the BP portrait prize. Part of the prize was to paint someone deserving of being in the National Portrait Gallery. So, I chose Paul Smith as I had the Paul Smith scholarship at the Slade. He was my first commissioned portrait, and then I started to get other commissions. I never really set out to become a portraitist.

I always paint from life. I might use photographs to help, but I will paint the head and the hands from life. I will just try to capture them. I'm quite impressed with the hands now I see the painting again.

Painting a view

When I met Vanessa, she was interested in the space. The windows were important. This was her view. And what she very much liked were the beehives, even if you can’t really tell, on the right-hand side. So I had this other idea, which I've done in other paintings, which was to make a painting of the view, so she's sitting in a room in front of the painting of the window. And it incorporated all these little knickknacks, things that she was really happy with. And the magenta colour on the shelf fits in with the red that she wanted to wear. To wear that dress was a bold decision. And then also the jewellery. She made a conscious effort to be bold. 

She would have come in, and I would have taken photographs. I would have done some sketches of her. I do the sketch because it helps me, and then I usually just give it to the person. All the build-up is arranged from the sketches and the photos. But the actual process of the painting is trying to happen with her there.

A period of portraiture

I haven't done many portraits. Actually, this period I would consider my peak because I was painting four people at the same time who were all really big. It's kind of like showing off, but it's quite funny. I was painting Vanessa, Camilla Parker Bowles, Maggie Smith, and the writer David Lodge. Well, they're all big things and, one week I remember I painted each one on consecutive days. And also, because they are all big, all for institutions, I couldn't put them off. 

Sometimes, even though it's a portrait that has been commissioned by someone else, they don't feel comfortable in the sense of it being all about them. My job is making it all about them. Sometimes people, consciously or unconsciously want to deflect away from themselves a little bit, so Vanessa might have wanted to make it about the space. I think she was proud to be a woman and proud of herself and her role. And I think that's part of why she's quite dressed up, to be a proud woman. 

It’s a portrait, so it’s not supposed to look like she’s smiling and posed for a photo. There’s supposed to be something else. What happens often with that situation is that they'll say, “Oh, I don't look that happy.” She does have a sort of a smile. It looks a bit like a self-conscious smile I guess, but you can't hold that sort of warm glowing smile as in photos. And you don't necessarily want to either. 

I'm used to doing paintings for institutions, and the painting had a role—a celebratory one—and I’m fulfilling that role—doing the portrait for that purpose. Her outfit, the background with the view: she looks professional. At the same time, there's a sense of the personal. 

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