Born in 1935 in Hong Kong, Gerald Rose was around twenty-six years old when he painted this 1961 self-portrait especially for Ruth. He looked back on it forty years later:
‘my face is very dark against the strong light. I was facing a window and a view of bushes and greenery. Why wasn’t I looking straight at the camera, so to speak? Instead I turned my eyes away – perhaps I couldn’t confront myself. Now I would look directly at myself. Perhaps it was out of embarrassment that I cheated so as to put myself against the light and become a silhouette.’
This is in many ways an ambiguous self-portrait. His boyish vulnerability, his still, unsmiling demeanour, his almost imperceptibly averted gaze are accentuated by the way his skin is deeply shadowed on one side, and, on the other, tinged with green from both the garden beyond and the painted room itself.
His sensuous, expressionless lips are a muted pink. His blood-red tie stands out strongly. The composition is partly influenced by John Minton, who used brilliant greens in his 1950s paintings set in the tropics. Rose’s self-portrait perhaps unconsciously reflects his own adjustment from a tropical childhood, with its great happiness and losses, to the more muted climate of post-war England.
Born to an English father and east-Asian mother, Rose enjoyed an idyllic early childhood in Hong Kong, where ‘we… had monkeys in our garden, snakes and lizards around’. When the Japanese invaded, his father was sent to a prisoner-of-war camp, and he and his mother were interned in Stanley Camp – where he lived from the age of six to eleven. Conditions were difficult; diseases were prevalent. His mother died there when she was only thirty-four.
Just after the war, he came to England to stay in Lowestoft, where he attended art school. His father came to England, but died soon after. From 1955-9, Rose was a student at London’s Royal Academy Schools – visiting lecturers included Stanley Spencer, Carel Weight and John Minton.
In 1958, his illustrated children’s book St. Francis Tamed the Wolf, co-written with his wife Elizabeth Pretty, was published by Faber and Faber. His second book, Wuffles Goes to Town (Faber, 1959) contains a masterly gouache (inspired by children’s art), evoking London as cacophonous, neon-lit, car-ridden. Old Winkle and the Seagull (Faber, 1960), which won the Kate Greenaway Award, is perhaps the most exuberantly painterly of Rose’s illustrated children’s books.