Between 1958 and 1971, Ruth Borchard collected one hundred self-portraits by British and British-based artists. These were mostly oil paintings, watercolours and gouaches, with a couple of lithographic prints, and one sculpted relief. Dating between 1921 and 1971, the vast majority were assembled between 1958 and 1966.
Ruth wrote that:
‘one of the greatest satisfactions of my collection: about one in three of the self-portraits were done because of my request. They would not exist but for that. It makes me feel creative at one remove.’
With astonishing bravado Ruth set herself a ceiling of 21 guineas for any one picture, irrespective of the artist’s fame, and usually succeeded. Michael Ayrton wrote to her:
‘I will accept the 21gns and I much admire anyone who can obtain so many works for no more than that figure.’
The earliest picture in the collection is by Raymond Coxon, from 1921, the year he went to study at the Royal College of Art in London, alongside his great friend the sculptor Henry Moore. It shows a pink-faced serious young man who had served as a soldier during the First World War.
Another early self-portrait, painted around 1930, shows Carel Weight as a sensitive young aesthete. He went on to teach a later generation of artists at the Royal College in the 1950s and 60s, whose self-portraits works Ruth collected).
The self-portrait by the great Scottish painter Anne Redpath dates from 1943, when she was in her late thirties; it is a consummate rendition of a strong, austere-looking woman shot through with subtle threads of wild colour.
However, most of the artworks here were created in the 1950s and 60s, and, in two cases, the early 70s.
The final self-portrait Ruth collected is by Lucinda Mackay; painted around 1971, it shows the artist as a chic youngish woman of her time, apparently liberated by new currents and attitudes in society.
Among young artists spotted by Ruth in their student days were Mario Dubsky, Peter Phillips and Patrick Procktor, along with Anthony Eyton, Anthony Green, Ken Howard, David Tindle and others relatively early in their careers. As her collection, and her confidence, grew she approached artists at the height of their careers. Some declined to participate, but many, such as Michael Ayrton, Roger Hilton, Feliks Topolski and Keith Vaughan, co-operated.
The collection shows a wide variety of artistic influences, including Camden Town, Expressionism, the Euston Road School, Art School Academicism, Kitchen Sink School, Art Brut, Scottish Colourism and Continental Existentialism. There are also many traces of teaching by influential, often charismatic figures in the British art scene of the 1950s, such as William Coldstream, David Bomberg, John Minton, Carel Weight, Ruskin Spear, Keith Vaughan and Robert Buhler.
Ruth Borchard’s collection offers a particular insight into the influence of the painter David Bomberg on a group of followers and pupils, including Mario Dubsky, Dennis Creffield, Andrew Forge, Cliff Holden, Dorothy Mead, and Patrick Procktor. Their self-portraits share a sublime intensity rare in a period whose art is sometimes characterised by an anaemic, academic air, yet Mario Dubsky described Bomberg in the mid 50s as an entirely unknown, uncelebrated and isolated figure.
The collection is full of revelations about once relatively obscure artists who have gone on to become critically appreciated, and about artists of stature who have been unfairly neglected, such as the Glaswegian colourist Sinclair Thomson and a master self-portraitist, Nathaniel Davies.
Only five of the hundred self-portraits are by women, yet their presence is strongly felt. Ruth did approach other female artists or self-portraits but none felt able to help. There is a wry, brusque note from Jean Cooke (signed Jean Bratby, then her married name) to Ruth, in which the artist agrees to receive a much lower price for her work than would normally be the case:
‘I am not a feminist but to have only 3 women painters out of 91[the tally to date] makes rather poor odds so 21 gns it is. Are you going to come and pick up the painting?’
The self-portraits by female artists – Ithell Colquhoun, Anne Redpath, Dorothy Mead, Jean Cooke and Lucinda Mackay – span more than five decades. Each comes across as self-assured, independent and original-minded, just as Ruth Borchard did in her writings, in person and as creator of this unique collection.