The Ruth Borchard Self-Portrait Collection was the life-long project of Ruth Borchard (1910-2000), an extraordinary patron of artists. Ruth Borchard was born in a fishing village near Hamburg on February 10th 1910, the daughter of an assimilated Jewish businessman, Robert Berendsohn and his wife Alma. Brought up as a socialist and freethinker, she studied economics and social psychology at the university of Hamburg. In 1937 she married Kurt Borchard, who ran the family shipping business in Hamburg (and later in London). She fled from Germany as a Jewish refugee with her husband in 1938, eventually settling in Reigate, Surrey with their four children.
A prolific author, Ruth Borchard wrote children’s books, a biography of the political economist and philosopher John Stuart Mill (1957), an erudite and poetic book on roses, On My Own Rose, a study of Jewish mysticism (1989), murder mystery novels and a semi-autobiographical account of her time interred on the Isle of Man during the Second World War, entitled “We Are Strangers Here: An ‘Enemy Alien’ in Prison in 1940”, written but not completed in 1943 and which only came to light after her death. First published in 2008 by Vallentine Mitchell (London and Portland, Oregon), this novel is a mixture of fiction and autobiography, and tells the story of a young German refugee, Anna Silver, arrested as an ‘enemy alien’ in Britain in 1939, and her subsequent detention in Holloway Prison – a story which, in some of the broad details, mirrors Ruth’s experiences on the outbreak of war. Critics have described it as ‘a rare document’ and ‘a moving and compelling book’, it is full of poignant, sometimes tragicomic episodes and details.
In an unpublished essay (c. 1969), Ruth asked: “Why did I begin collecting self-portraits?” Her interest in modern painting began at the age of thirteen, influenced by an enthusiastic teacher at school. In the 1950s in London, she did the rounds of the few galleries which then showed modern painting: “With a cheque given to me to buy a refrigerator I bought two early Ruskin Spears.”
She evoked the revelatory moment when the idea of collecting self-portraits was conceived:
‘In literature, my taste ran to introspective books: diaries, autobiographies, letters. Over the years I often felt tempted to collect first editions of these moderns. Then one day… mounting up the stairs in our house, I was struck by the idea that introspection in painting meant: self-portraits. I vividly remember the moment, even the step, where I suddenly saw our landing crowded with paintings, all sizes, types, styles, media. And this is exactly what has come to pass.’
She began to visit with a new excitement the shows of the art schools, the ‘Young Contemporaries’ (an annual exhibition of nationwide student’s art in London, initiated in 1949 by Carel Weight), and the small avant-garde London galleries, notably Helen Lessore’s Beaux Arts Gallery, Halima Nalecz’s Drian galleries, Victor Musgrave’s Gallery One as well as the more established Leicester Galleries with its annual show of ‘Artists of Fame and Promise’, and the Redfern Gallery in Cork Street. Another resource sheused was Jack Beddington’s 1957 book, Young Artists of Promise.
In her little black notebook (actually a pre-war German diary, which, in 1958, she had adapted to make an alphabetical record of all the artists she approached for self-portraits), Ruth wrote on the first page, ‘In May 64, I began dowsing with the pendulum. Will – [space left blank] be a good painter? And will he go far?’
So like the practice of dowsing with a pendulum, at which she proved quite successful, seeking, discovering and sometimes nurturing talented and promising artists was for her an intuitive task, at which, on the whole, she proved good.
‘Always I was trying to feel my way through to the painter behind the canvas – was there original talent plus the stamina to sustain it? Carefully I refrained from reading art reviews so as to keep my vision unbiased. If I felt a certain physical sensation I made a note in my diary and looked out for further work by that painter… this amounts to ‘dowsing’ for talent… I began to visit studios, to meet artists… it was an engrossing pursuit.’
She found that she admired in contemporary British panting:
‘a solid body of craftsmanship, a singular honesty, modesty… The organic tradition is strong here… I would, however, like to see one barrier broken in English painting. This is the careful avoidance of human drama as subject matter. The drama, the excitement is confined to the surface of the canvas… Why cannot we have paintings, also, like Goya’s? Why not the cri de coeur, also, in what is being painted? This I find in Anthony Whishaw, Kenneth Brazier, and a very few others only. Perhaps the present re-emergence of figurative painting will bring this in its train.’
The viewer of Ruth Borchard’s collection has (to adapt Patrick Hayman’s words) ‘to put oneself aside in order to perceive and to stand humbly before the worlds’ of so many ‘distant personalities’. Their self-portraits help conjure up a mass of seemingly timeless, mysterious, elusive human identities – belonging to a definably recent yet increasingly distant historical era.