There are two letters from Lawrence Gowing to Ruth Borchard on headed notepaper, indicating his ascending official status in the art world. The first, dated December 1964, is headed ‘CHELSEA SCHOOL OF ART’, of which he was Principal. The second letter from May 1965, is headed ‘THE TATE GALLERY, LONDON S.W.1.’, where he was Deputy Director. It seems that, following Gowing’s earlier letter, she agreed to pay him £40 (or forty guineas) – the highest figure paid for any self-portrait in her collection.
Dated 1963, the picture tallies with the freer, more experimental approach of his paintings from about 1957 onwards. It is par excellence, a genre portrait of the middle-aged artist in his studio (a bare canvas and the hint of an easel barely discernible); he would then have been forty-five years old. Here, a balding, lean figure looks wryly at himself/us through one bespectacled eye (the other seemingly obliterated in a mix of vivid brushstrokes extending like some out-of-focus aura beyond the outlines of his face.) His look is one of benign self-questioning, personal gentleness seeing to co-exist with rigorous intellect.
In 1936, Gowing became a pupil of William Coldstream, joining the Euston Road School two years later. Stephen Spender has written:
‘Coldstream and his colleagues who taught there… build up the contours of objects in their paintings not with outlines enclosing them but in small brushstrokes, going up to and sometimes crossing edges.’
In his self-portrait, Gowing has radically modified the ‘Euston Road School’ approach, building up the contoured appearance of himself in ‘small brush strokes’, then ‘going up to’ and ‘crossing edges’ – giving a dazzling, slightly dizzying edginess to this portrait of the otherwise sober-looking artist and art critic(who wrote monographs on Vermeer, Matisse and Lucian Freud).
He later wrote about his earlier (1936) Self-Portrait in Oakleigh Avenue:
‘In my bedroom at home, I leaned moodily against the door brooding on what a miserable state it was to be eighteen and to admire every artist but oneself, when I looked in the mirror hanging opposite and noticed that the black of the stained wood I was leaning against infused the colour of my jacket, hair and eyes to abolish the separateness of things. It made my situation paintable.’