Diana Cumming

  • Title: Self Portrait
  • Medium: Oil on board
  • Width: 53cm 20 7/8in
  • Height: 66cm 26in
  • Year of creation: 2012
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Self Portrait

 

Diana Cumming, who was born in Hereford in 1929, had been living with her architect husband Neil Macfadyen for about four years in an 18th century house in London’s Blackheath when she painted a self-portrait c.1960 of herself in a chunky mustard yellow sweater. (The painters John Bratby and Jean Cooke were then near neighbours.) Diana and Neil live here still.

 

Cumming very seldom paints direct self-portraits though she says that she often ‘uses my face obliquely to convey someone else’ – as in a 1990 oil painting of a youngish woman with a piercingly engaging blue-eyed mien, on whose mountainously coiffured hair perches a bird in song (a rather Edward Learish image at once alarmingly rich and strange and evocative of the artist’s irrepressible creative urge).

 

In the winter of 2012, when she was eighty-four, Cumming painted this rare, direct self-portrait in her Blackheath studio: a candid self-appraisal that celebrates a spirit of timeless searching vitality. She had bought a fine woollen scarf from Liberty’s of London. The thought suddenly came to her that ‘its rich patterns and bright colours would make a fascinating design to draw in a self-portrait’.

 

Against a pale, muted silvery grey background – and the warm pallor of her complexion and still, unsmiling but not solemn features and enigmatic, rather remotely abstracted green eyes (as emphatic as those in a classical Indian miniature), and short, greying hair rendered with hallucinatory acuity – the details of oval lapis lazuli earrings, a glimpse of lustrous pink sweater (under a navy blue cardigan) and psychedelically patterned pashmina of gorgeous intricacy (wrapped around neck and shoulders) all stand out with subtle vibrancy.

 

In the earlier self-portrait, painted when she was about thirty, she is wearing the Beatnik-like yellow roll-neck sweater, which kept her warm in her studio on chilly autumnal and wintry days. She says, ‘I didn’t want to look too solemn but you can’t hold yourself laughing or even smiling in the mirror for long as it would appear like a forced grimace!’

 

She says, ‘I paint very slowly and carefully, and other people I find too fidgety to paint and I don’t want to keep them waiting.’ In the c.1960 self-portrait, the pale, subtly pink-blushed face (austerely isolated against a backdrop of opalescent grey coalescing with yellow) has the barest hint of a smile around generous green eyes. Her look is one of quite beatific patience. Her long hair and accentuated eyebrows are painted black –they were in fact dark brown – but she says ‘I made them darker to light up the face’.

 

The sweater’s variegated yellow hues have an undulating landscape feel. ‘I was very keen on yellow then’ – in fact she painted the double-height door of her studio at the British School in Rome (she had a Prix de Rome scholarship from 1954-56 after graduating from London’s Slade School of Art) a brilliant cadmium yellow – whereas her pictures nowadays show a predilection for marine blues, especially turquoise.

 

At the Slade, Professor William Coldstream and Lucian Freud, a young visiting tutor, showed interest in her art. Of this early work (both fiercely focussed, visionary paintings – one picture depicting naked figures of Adam and Eve eerily overlooked by a spectral, smiling human head of the sexless Creator – as well as paintings rendered meticulously from the life), Frank Auerbach (a fellow student) said they ‘conjured up, by her tremulous reaction, vivid and living images. Manic, pure and uncorrupted.’

 

Cumming had solo exhibitions at Helen Lessore’s Beaux Arts Gallery, London in 1964 and at The Serpentine Gallery, London in 1987. Her works are in Collections of The Arts Council, The Britten-Pears Foundation, National Museums, Liverpool and University College, London.