There are two letters from William Gear to Ruth Borchard, dated July 1961, sent from Eastbourne. In the first, he wrote:
‘I am sending you herewith the only suitable “Self Portrait” I have. It is a drawing in Indian ink of March 1953… Wishing you well with your collection.’
In his second letter, Gear wrote:
‘As you will have surmised I have no self portraits in oil. Similarly I think you will find a good number of contemporary painters are in the same position… I shall be pleased to let you have it for 12 gns.’
Almost all of Gear’s work from his student days onwards – at Edinburgh College of Art from 1932-6, and then in 1937-8 in Paris, where he was taught by Léger – seems to be built around what one critic has called ‘a dark structural grid’ – the skeletal armature approaching abstraction of his self-portrait drawing’.
William Gear was born in 1915 into a Scottish mining family. Many years later, he realised how in his early environment on Fife’s ‘rocky coast with castles, wild storms and huge trees… the pit head, the winding gear and structural aspects of the chimneys… must have been the most impressive visual things to a child.’ Pre-war travels in Italy, Greece and Turkey helped introduce ‘traces of the Byzantine approach in my paintings, this structural quality, this vertical accent’. A visit to the newly-liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in late 1946, profoundly affected him. From 1947-50 Gear had his own studio in Paris.
He was thirty-eight years old when he made this self-portrait. The flat cap conceals his baldness but it could be a very old man’s self-portrayal, or that of a younger man whose burden of hardships has literally marked him out.
The drawings’ pared-down bone structure shows the use of Indian ink in its most calligraphically raw and succinct state. Bold, terse sweeps of the brush conjure up the sunken cheeks; two lines seemingly grooved by anxious thought above the nose; deep shadows under the eyes; spidery lines around the mouth and the minefield of shapes which make up the nose; the profound abysses which are the hugely dilated eyes. Not a stroke, not a feature could be altered without changing the entire facial inscape.