Roger de Grey’s self-portrait was probably painted during 1960-3, when he was in his early forties. Though this may seem to be a picture literally of self-effacement (his countenance subtly reduced to a pale reflection in the large, plain gilded mirror), his gentle beatific regard radiates insistently throughout. Friends all stressed his sincerity and modest, self-deprecating nature.
The curious abstract white ‘bar’ at the right of the picture, and further bars – along the top of the mantelpiece, and as part of the window frame – combine with golden struts elsewhere to endow the painting with its own informal grid pattern. This is complemented by other geometrical shapes – the circle of the clock-face, the white and gold segments of the fan (mediated by a delicate spiral design), De Grey once said:
‘I would like to have been an abstract painter. Abstract painting fascinates me from the sheer imaginative invention of it.’
The self-portrait shows that he was to some degree an inventive abstract painter in figurative apparel.
The mix of precious objects in sharp, bold focus on the mantelpiece carries subtle symbolic overtones. The heavy, black antique clock may remind us of time passing, our mortal nature even. The gilded miniature vessel with its possibly red-lacquered inside – and the fan behind making a lovely kind of sail – may suggest the notion of life as a kind of precious voyage. The centrepiece porcelain egg in its golden carapace may speak of spiritual re-birth, ‘the world’, as de Grey described it, ‘as a glittering marvel’.
The garden shimmering beyond the window, introduces de Grey’s own self-confessedly key subject, that of nature observed and ‘its colour sensations extracted’ on the spot, with ‘the addition of textual complexity [taking] place in the studio’. Though here, of course, nature has been observed, painted and distilled on the spot in the studio. Many of his later paintings show the intimate landscape around his Kent studio and heat-hazed estuary views around his house in France.
Born in Penn, Buckinghamshire, de Grey studied at Chelsea School of Art from 1936-9; early paintings show the influence of the Euston Road School. From 1984-93, as President of London’s Royal Academy, de Grey remained a non-conformist and rebel, albeit one at the heart of the artistic establishment.