Brian Robb was born in Scarborough, Yorkshire in 1913, so he would have been about thirty-six years old when he painted this self-portrait (dated verso c.1949), which Ruth Borchard acquired for twenty guineas in 1961.
It is notable firstly for its strongly vertical format, making the artist appear tall, lean and distinguished. With his bow-tie, waistcoat, bald, illumined pate and somewhat puzzled expression, he comes across as a lovable, humorous figure with a rather aloof, mystified air. Though he seems to be looking more or less directly at the viewer – or his own face in a mirror, as he paints – his eyes appear as abysses, dark and impenetrable.
The rubicund of his cheeks extends, oddly enough, all the way up to the eyes themselves – the impression given is less of the flush of health than of almost painful self-consciousness. The full ruby lips seem somewhat at odds with his otherwise somewhat professorial demeanour. There is something disquieting at the heart of the picture – accounted for partly by the treatment of the eyes.
He studied at Chelsea School of Art from 1930-4, then at the Slade from 1935-6 – teaching at Chelsea from 1936-62, with the war years spent as a soldier (including a period working in the Army Camouflage Unit in Cairo).
In the late 1950s/early 60s, Robb, whose principal work (up to this period and resuming thereafter) was as an illustrator, had an especially fertile painting period. His Townscape (1959), an oil painting in the Arts Council Collection, shows the modern urban scene ingeniously abstracted into geometric blocks of shimmering lights and signs. The early sixties were a period of exploration and change for Robb: after two one-man painting shows in London and Windsor, he went on in 1963 to become head of the Royal College of Art’s illustration department – where he stayed until 1978.
During the 1970s, Robb illustrated several children’s books by the writer James Roose-Evans, based on the adventures of a little bear called Odd and a small circus clown called Elsewhere who were said to live (in modern times) in the non-fictional late-seventeenth century Fenton House in Hampstead. Long out of print, these books deserve to be resurrected as modern children’s classics – written and illustrated with witty, stylish, madcap affection.