Reflecting on the portrait of Professor Robert Kendell

Dr Robert KendellWe 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 Robert Kendell, president 1996-1999
Professor Kendell died in 2002 so unfortunately we were unable to interview him as part of this project. 

Artist: Christian Furr
Interview date:
November 2022
Interviewer and transcriber:
Catriona Grant

Christian Furr reflecting on the portrait

Robert Kendell has got both his elbows on the mantlepiece, and that's quite unusual. Sometimes you see people resting on one elbow, but for some reason, Bob put both his elbows on the mantlepiece. And as soon as he did it, I thought: ‘That’s it!’ It’s chance things that happen. And when you're an artist you have to be there to record these chance moments. 

Freezing time

I want to capture a moment, but not a photographic moment, a portrait moment, which is different. When you have your portrait painted, it's a bit like freezing time or just appreciating time for what it is in the current moment. It’s like a crystallization of life in a way. It's a process. It's a conversation. It's a collaboration, 50/50, so there's something of me that goes into the painting, and something of the subject in an equal measure. I don't expect people to sit there for hours on end, like an apple on the table. To me, that's not what life is. It's about moments and it's about capturing someone in the best kind of light in whatever means is suitable to yourself. 

I put myself in the position of the subject. I would want to be depicted in a certain way, probably in my best light, but also a truthful light. So there's no kind of whitewashing: the Cromwell quote, ‘paint me, warts and all’ kind of thing. There's no ‘airbrushing’, for want of a better word. 

Role reversal

I was conscious that this is a psychiatrist. I'm now in a position where the roles are reversed because, in a way, being a portrait artist is a very intimate thing. It's a unique position, almost like a father confessor, if in reference to the clergy. And it's two people that analyse people in different ways coming together, for different reasons, but both of them are about unravelling something, finding clues, and working things out, a positive goal for both. 

I remember looking at different viewpoints, because when you paint somebody, the eyeline is everything. In this case, I lowered my position, putting my elbow on the ground and being really low, and taking images from a low angle, and that's what the angle is here, and Robert was looking down at me as I was taking the pictures. That's how I work: I take lots of photographs as well as painting in situ. And he was kind of looking at me thinking: ‘What the hell is he doing 'cause he's crawling around on the floor!?’ 

'Looking into my soul'

When I looked at all the images, I quite liked that quizzical expression. It’s good humoured, and it’s very accommodating. I think it was partly my phobias about being analysed myself. I was thinking at the time about the role of the patient and the role of the psychiatrist. I came to it feeling a bit like a patient. And I think that's reflected in the pose and the gaze and everything. I deliberately didn't put any highlights on his eyes. I wanted his eyes to be almost penetrating—like black balls—just looking into my soul. There's a slight reflection on that one. That was how I felt at the time: I was being stared into. It’s a very penetrating gaze. The gaze is very important in this painting.

I love open fires. There’s something very cosy and I think people relax more when they're by a fire. There’s something kind of magnetic about it. It's primitive actually. Even though the fire in this case is not lit, it's a symbol of the potential of something. 

Visual jokes

The portrait is not only of Bob Kendell, but it also documents the previous College building in Belgrave Square. I love mirrors in paintings, so there's a mirror above Bob’s head. Everything in a painting is considered, even if it looks like a chance thing. I like the fact that the gap between the curtains looks a bit like a party hat or something. It looks like it's sitting on his head so it's a bit of an optical or a visual joke. It’s sort of celebratory in a way: you have Christmas, and everybody puts hats on. I like to infuse things with a bit of humour, even if you don't notice it. I think it all goes in subliminally. I don't think he was aware of me doing that. But it's not intrusive, it's just a thing in the background that's quite nice. I like shapes and pictures - that's a bit like a triangle. There's a sort of semi-circle in the light on the top left. There are the squares in the mantlepiece.

Bob Kendall had written a book about drugs. It was kind of personal to me because my brother had drug issues. He died when he was 27. I was conscious of that, and about Bob’s role in dealing with drugs and having a connection with government to try to change things for the better. And I thought that was brilliant, and that it could be suggested in the painting, in a very subtle way. So that's what that green book is on the on the mantelpiece. It’s a sort of non-literal nod to his opus of what he achieved in his life. It's a really lovely detail because it's important for him, but it’s also important for me, with my brother. It’s a personal thing. I'll always put little things in that are personal clues. Sometimes they get found, sometimes they don’t.
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