Book Review: Face to Face. British Self-Portraits in the Twentieth Century

by Philip Vann, Sansom & Company Bristol, 2004, £45, ISBN 1-904537-08-1

This study of British 20th Century self-portraits, including the 100 works collected by Ruth Borchard between the late 1950’s and early to mid 1960’s, is an extremely interesting book written, on the whole, with great care and insight.  When explaining the qualities of a picture, Philip Vann writes sympathetically and attractively; I found myself learning from him how to look at (these) pictures and his freedom from pomposity and his apparent lack of an agenda make it easy and refreshing to read.

However, there are structural weaknesses which need to be explored.  To begin with, the Ruth Borchard collection is – like all collections of an individual – idiosyncratic.  It is not a representative collection and no criticism of her is implied by that.  Even museums have to work within limitations of finance and space and availability when assembling their collections, and she was no different.  The result is that, on its own, the collection would have been an example of one person’s taste and, coincidentally, would have caught the work of some artists who had, or who later came to have, considerable reputations, along with others – in some ways as interesting – who didn’t.  The author has attempted to address this issue by starting the book with a study of some of the artists missing from the collection, (whose pictures date from 1921 to 1971), thereby enabling the book to be expanded to cover the period from 1900 to the mid 1980’s and to be presented as a general study of British 20th Century self-portraits.  This works up to a point, but the resulting bifurcation is odd and it also magnifies, unfairly, the limitations of the collection.

The other fundamental weakness, which reduces the book’s effectiveness, is that not a single word of criticism issues from Mr Vann’s pen.  No picture, however clumsy or uninteresting – and there are some of these – is criticised.  This approach is a typical consequence of the author who has been chosen as, effectively, the authorised biographer.  The price of full co-operation from the estate is that the writer has to flatter and write positively.  This greatly reduces the scholastic status of the work.  There is some point in laying out a whole bookful of self-portraits and describing them cleverly and affectionately, but there isn’t enough point to move the work from the category of an intelligent list into a higher category of scholarly work.  The author will say that that was not his intention.

Let us look first at the pictures in the collection.  Mrs Borchard was, depending on your viewpoint, either prudent, poor, mean or foolish in the way in which she assembled her collection.  She set herself a price limit – 21 guineas – per picture and seems not to have strayed beyond it, preferring to forego an acquisition than to pay more.  I have no problem with that; it seems like common sense for a private collector to impose some such self-restraint.  She studied the contemporary art market and tried to buy from artists whose work she found interesting.  What is unusual is that she approached artists for works which she had never seen.  She saw the work of an artist which she liked and then wrote to them to ask if they had, or could do, a self-portrait in her price range.

Each entry begins with a description of the way in which the picture was acquired; it goes on to describe the work; and it tries, where possible, to set the work in the context of the artist’s later development.  Mr Vann is excellent at this, clearly researching across a vast wealth of written material and trying to check and improve his information by making contact with those artists still alive.  One big surprise, to me, was the influence of Bomberg on a number of the artists: Creffield, Critchlow, Dubsky, Holden, Marr and Mead (many of them having been taught by him at the Borough Polytechnic).  These are not the best of the pictures in the collection, but their identity as a group is striking and shows the great influence of Bomberg as a teacher.  (He also, of course, strongly influenced the work of Auerbach and Kossoff.)

A feature of the collection worth exploring is the work of those artists who were already well-known and who nevertheless agreed to play the game within her price range.  The result was usually that they sold her drawings rather than oils, but no less tantalising for that.  So we see work by Ayrton, Collins, Gear, Hilton, Topolski and Vaughan, of which the Collins, as one might expect, is the oddest (appearing to be the head and neck of a human in the process of being transformed from human to plant form) and the Hilton the most penetrating.  Other artists, either already well-known or later to become so, produced a mixed bag of work.  The Proctor is possibly the worst picture in the collection; the Weight and Uglow insightful, into their technique as much as their character.

But there are many gaps, not all of which can be explained by cost issues.  Whilst it is understandable that Ruth Borchard wouldn’t have winkled out self-portraits by Bacon, Freud, Sutherland, Hockney or Auerbach, it is surprising that she didn’t dangle the money in front of some others who needed it (Colquhoun, Macbryde, Wilde).  However, that really is to quibble.  The section of the book which deals with artists not represented in the collection fills many of the gaps and, of course, somewhat overshadows the quality of the collection.  Here we can see what the great British artists of the century did with the genre and some of the work is particularly strong (Craxton, Freud, Sutherland).

Nevertheless, although a book of two halves, it coheres beautifully, showing some great artists, some young, some unknown, some below par, wrestling with the challenge of depicting themselves.  It has opened my eyes to many names which are new to me – I particularly loved the self-portrait by the Welshman, Brian Rees, not a familiar name to me, whose picture is as strong as an early Freud or Craxton.  What a fine accolade for him and what a fitting example of a fine book.