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Portrait (2011) (c) Ruth Borchard Next Generation Collection

Maggi Hambling, Self Portrait (2011): (c) Ruth Borchard Next Generation Collection

Artists looking at themselves, looking at you

Self-portraiture is always a fascinating subject for artists. How to show off your best side, your personality and how to incorporate yourself into your style of painting. In anticipation of how artists see themselves, HOT’s Lauris Morgan-Griffiths went along to see The Painter Behind the Canvas at the Jerwood Gallery.

These self-portraits are from the Ruth Borchard Collection. Born in Germany, she studied economics and social psychology at the university of Hamburg and fled to England in 1938, with her husband Kurt Borchard, as a Jewish refugee. She was a prolific author of children’s books, a biography of John Stuart Mill, poetry, murder mysteries, a treatise on Jewish mysticism, as well as a semi-autobiographical account of her internment on the Isle of Man during the Second World War.

She started the collection of self-portraits in 1958 and by 1971 she had collected a hundred British and Britain-based artists’ portraits. “Always I was trying to feel my way through to the painter behind the canvas”.

She wrote to many artists offering around 21 guineas for their self-portrait – irrespective of their status –  far below the amount  that many of the artists would have expected for their work.

Letters are shown in display cases. Michael Ayrton wrote, “I will accept the 21gns and I much admire anyone who can obtain so many works for no more than that figure.”

Graham Sutherland wrote, “Alas, I have only one self-portrait (the others having been destroyed) and this, although unfinished, I do not want to part with.”

Henry Moore’s typewritten response was: “I have not attempted to do any self-portraits since my student days and those early attempts were not kept…”

John Nash admitted his self-portraits were so bad he had destroyed them. So, “I have recognised my limitations and given it up!”

To be honest, I was a little disappointed with the exhibition. More from anticipation than reality. I had hoped that the theme of  self-portraiture would be more loosely interpreted. Recently, the Jerwood had exhibited LS Lowry’s Pillar in the Sea, a poignant self-portrait clearly depicting his loneliness: “a solitary pillar in the middle of the sea, waiting for the sea of life to finish it off.” Grayson Perry has depicted himself as a walled city with a hub surrounded by his life, experiences and emotions. Photographers invariably hide behind their camera or in reflections.

However, I do realise that this is a collection mainly from around the 1960s. It is a document of that person, portraying themselves as they would like to be seen.

Keith Vaughn’s is a delightful pencil study; simple, you can almost see the child within, the hair ruffled, the face unmarked with experience; the eyes, defused, look reflectively inwards. Next to it is one of his own paintings which could as easily be a self-portrait – a Seated Figure; head to one side, a body slumped as if slightly defeated by life. Vaughn himself suffered ill health and depression and committed suicide. But maybe that is reading too much into it.

The nature of being an artist is to be honest, to display your feelings and thoughts. Art in itself is exposing and perhaps self-portraiture is a little too revealing to some. So there is safety in the traditional, solemn pose – but even so it reveals quirks and personality.

William Gear has contributed an ink painting, his face boldly criss-crossed with black lines. Alongside is one of his abstract paintings, black and brown with a red line crossing the landscape. Both direct and bold.

There are not too many women represented, but then women have long been absent from art history. Anne Redpath’s contribution had been painted some years earlier. Consequently, she was at pains to point out that the self-portrait was not recent and wanted people to know that, “I don’t look like the portrait now.” Maggie Hambling painted herself as she is: glass and cigarette in hand, one eye glinting, the other hidden by a cloud of cigarette smoke.

Roger Hilton looks serious, his mouth turned down, his eyes slightly obscured by his glasses, his hair, thin on top, unruly as if on a bid to freedom, yet behind his glasses I think I see an impish glint. Alberto Morrocco has painted himself looking warily sideways while  his red hat and red and earthy waistcoat or scarf give a jauntiness to his character.

Borchard died in 2000. The collection was invigorated in 2011 with the Self-Portrait Prize of £10,000 and the possibility of entries being purchased for the Next Generation Collection. Sixteen were purchased for the 2015 prize and that is already showing a more contemporary approach to portraiture.

The Painter Behind the Canvas Jerwood Gallery, Rock-a-Nore Road, Hastings TN34 3DW until 9 October 2016. Opening times: Tuesday-Sunday and Bank Holiday Mondays 11am-5pm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted 10:45 Friday, May 27, 2016 In: Visual Arts

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