Reflecting on the portrait of Professor John Cox

We 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 John Cox, president 1999-2002 
Date of interview: September 2022 
Interviewer and transcriber: Peter Carpenter

Written comments: supplied by the artist, 2023

John Cox reflecting on the portrait

As president, I wanted to re-establish the collegiality, internationalism and inclusivity of the College, and I thought I had the background to be able to do that. I was very much aware of discrimination within the NHS and within the universities, and I was keen to make sure that the College itself was not only responding to “Were the Royal Colleges institutionally racist?”, but that we were actually taking initiatives. We were among the first to bring patient-users on to all College committees. As president, I held the very first meeting with black service user groups, whose comment was: “John, this is amazing, sitting down with the president.”

Holistic psychiatry

I've always been keen on being an advocate of holistic psychiatry and the values that underpin patient-centred care, and I was keen to provide leadership within that whole field. What is tremendously good today is the far greater influence the College has with government at a high level. We were looking for that in the ‘90s. We certainly had annual face to face meetings with the Department of Health. I could access ministers almost, with a phone call; we could advocate, we could discuss. And indeed, I had an hour with our patron, now King Charles. 

I knew presidents had portraits done and I knew there was an unveiling of them, and the cloth was taken off and people applauded, or they guffawed or what have you. So I thought, gosh, what's going to happen now? Emily Patrick showed me some of her paintings. I'd not got the background to cross question her, while thinking: ‘Well, is this going to be flattering to me? Does she know anything about College presidents?’ 

I met Emily Patrick for probably four sittings. She turned up and we greeted each other, but I wasn't thinking what was going to make an interesting portrait. I wanted her to pick up something that was important, that would say something about my presidency. I was aware the portrait would outlive me. 

Academic and international 

I wanted it to display something about my approach in the College, and I wanted to put up front that I was an academic. So, I wore the gown, not just because it was colourful, but because it represented my Oxford doctorate which was a prospective study of 263 semi-rural women in Uganda. I was proud of that, I’d put a lot of work into it, and wanted to highlight perinatal mental health globally. With this portrait I wanted to remind myself and others, that a president of the College had worked for over two years at Makerere University in Kampala. I learned an enormous amount from being in Africa. I was later appointed Foundation Professor of Psychiatry at Keele University in 1986.

The globe: that was not me putting Africa at the front. I didn't say ‘Let's have a globe in the background’, but I am glad that Emily thought about it and I am very pleased with the end result. I hope it symbolises that the College is an international organisation.   

Emily picked up the very untidy hair. I quite like that sort of slightly tangled loose look. I never combed my hair very much. She also picked up the sort of thoughtful, determined, serious bit of me.  She engaged me in conversation as she was painting, and she drew me out: What was it like being president?  What were your contributions?  What serious issues did you have to deal with? Well, I did have to deal with very serious issues: of personalities, politics, internationalism, and the direction of the College.

Trusting in the process

I think Emily got the pensive bit of me. But there was no showing it to me, no ‘What do you think?’ There was no means of saying ‘Touch it up!’ You got what she painted, and I would have regarded my doing anything more as being completely inappropriate. She was an artist. I knew it didn't have to be a likeness. It was not a photograph. I was hoping she would pick up something of my personality and something about what I was bringing. You basically just sat there, had a chat—an enjoyable conversation—and left her to do it. She was warm and empathic. And I trusted her.
I suppose, when I'm at the College I enjoy having a sneaky look at it. 

Emily Patrick reflecting on the portrait 

In 1987, I had been commissioned by the Medical Research Council to paint Sir James Gowans. They rejected the portrait that I had produced. I decided that painting portraits was incompatible with being a full-time mother and had decided to do no more commissions. So, 16 years later, it was with great fear that I accepted the challenge to paint Professor Cox.

The front room in Belgrave Square was an ideal space. It felt calm. We were never disturbed. The north light was unchanging. I was able to leave my easel in a cupboard and so it all felt easier. John Cox came in clearly happy to co-operate, comfortable in how he sat. I did not have to spend time trying to make him relax. 

I like a sitter to look alive in a portrait. This means that often conversation with the sitter is as demanding as the painting skills. His conversation flowed easily. My few questions were hardly necessary. This made him a perfect sitter. I love hearing about and trying to understand the lives of my subjects.

Global psychiatry

He was proud of the global aspect of his work and so, when trying to avoid a dull interior background, I was relieved to have the idea that a suggestion of a globe could be appropriate. I remember commenting how dull I find men's suits and so he offered to wear the red gown for the second sitting. The last sitting was very good for making the painting stronger. His character was so consistent that everything was just reinforced. I like the strength of this portrait.

Portrait painters and psychiatrists share the privilege of getting to know strangers at a deep level. Every portrait is a huge experience for me. I have to look at the subject, really with the mindset of a lover. I switch off critical faculties and almost worship the sitter for that period. Therefore, when I discover characteristics that I find really disagreeable, I can struggle to complete a portrait. This certainly did not happen with John Cox (or James Gowans). 

Read more to receive further information regarding a career in psychiatry