Kenneth Brazier

  • Title: Self Portrait
  • Medium: Oil on board
  • Width: 55.5cm 21 7/8in
  • Height: 56.5cm 22 1/4in
  • Year of creation: 1959
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Kenneth Brazier’s self-portrait is indeed a speedy ‘cri de coeur’’, a rather viscerally self-conscious crisis painting by a vulnerable young man. Holding a cigarette aloft in his right hand, the subject achieves a poise far removed from serenity as, frozen in alarm, he contemplates himself, his past or future maybe, or perhaps some terrible real or imagined scene.

There is one undated letter (c. 1961) from Ken Brazier to Ruth Borchard,  ‘I could meet you in the Grosvenor Hotel at 2.30 pm on Jan 5th and will bring 2 self portraits.’ Self-Portrait with outstretched arm –  probably the picture which Ruth bought – was on sale in ‘Young Contemporaries 1960’ at £20.

Ruth asked ‘why [amongst contemporary English painters] 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.’

Ken Brazier studied at the Slade School of Art from 1958-61. The painter Ben Levene  recalled him as being from an East End working class, artisan background, and that it was with Lucian Freud’s help he had gained entry to the college. Brazier was the subject of Freud’s A Young Painter (1958), a mesmerising study of an introspective, troubled young man.

Ken Brazier’s self-portrait is indeed a speedy cri de coeur, an edgy, exuberant crisis painting. Holding a cigarette aloft in his right hand, the subject, seemingly frozen in alarm, contemplates himself, his past or future maybe, or perhaps some terrible real or imagined scene.

Singular strokes for his nose, right ear, cheeks make it appear as though the skin has been excoriated. The matted fair-brown hair, stunned-seeming, blotchy pupils against whites of the eye, off-key orangey skin, bulbous red lips, brown upper (nicotine-stained?) teeth, apparently numerous fingers holding the cigarette – none are at all intended to look pretty or tasteful. The tempestuous background is close in spirit to surging passages in American Abstract Expressionism. There is an outrageous raw vulnerability to this self-portrayal which renders it poignantly humane.

Roger James Elsgood, a student at Norwich School of Art when Brazier was a visiting tutor, has written that Ken was ‘small, dishevelled, inarticulate, more than a bit of drinker and lacking in almost all of the social graces. But he was a painter of blazing energy and integrity.’

A large, consummately assured 1967 self-portrait – depicting Brazier open-mouthed, a pose typical of his garrulous, forthright self – is a study of a man in precarious equipoise. It was painted at a time of enriching mutual portraiture sessions with Lucian Freud at the latter’s studio in Paddington.

Nothing is known about Ken Brazier after 1969. Yet his gaunt visage, his turbulent yet dedicated creative character and searching openness are still urgently and palpably present both in Lucian Freud’s portrait of him and his own four surviving self-portraits.