Born in 1930 in south London, Cuming trained at Sidcup College of Art from 1945-9. He was just fifteen when he applied to Sidcup. Following National Service, he studied at the Royal College of Art from 1951-5. Taught by Ruskin Spear at first at Sidcup, then at the Royal College, he found Spear, then a rising star ‘demanding, critical but encouraging… [who taught me] the dynamics of composition’. He was elected a Royal Academician in 1974.
An earlier self-portrait, from 1945, depicting Cuming as an alert, beardless, nervous, good-looking adolescent, is illustrated in a 2000 book on the artist, ‘A Figure in the Landscape’ (Introduction by Richard Holmes). Its simple colourism – burnished flesh tones set against black eyes, hair, clothes and background – is striking. Perhaps this self-portrait reflects his youthful insecurities as an artist.
‘My tutor was John Minton, who I think was puzzled by me. He could see that I was unsettled, was always encouraging, but was highly critical in a humorous way.’
The later self-portrait (1959), acquired by Ruth Borchard in the same year for fifteen guineas, shows the artist at twenty-nine in the same pose, but now bearded and with an even warier mien. Both pictures have a rigorously subdued palette – black (admixed with some brown) predominating, subdued greens and reds added to the second portrait. At Sidcup, his
‘training had been based on the ideas… of painters like Sickert and Gilman… it was not until I entered the RCA that I became aware of the modern movement in painting.’
In 1955 Cuming was astounded by the beauty of Ravenna mosaics and Piero della Francesco frescoes in Arezzo. On long car journeys, Cuming has for many years visited and discovered those magical, light-fluctuating spots where land meets sky (such as, says Holmes, ‘the steep sheltered estuary of Fowey in Cornwall… the glimmering backwaters of Venice’), making extensive sketchbook notes, accompanied by written colour notes. Then he makes many preliminary studio studies, before embarking on the final paintings, in which human figures often appear to dissolve into the elements yet nonetheless remain distinct individuals, definite characters.