In 2009, Geoffrey White wrote: ‘I got to know Ruth Borchard through my association [in the late 1950s and early 60s] with the Reigate Society of Artists (Henryk Gotlib the star!). I recall Ruth’s ‘social evenings’ and high-powered discussions which my wife and I attended. On one occasion the theme was “Injustices of the Present Day”. Some time later Ruth invited us to her lovely house on the edge of the castle grounds.’ White was then an art teacher at Reigate Secondary School, and Ruth was ‘particularly concerned that I was not able to give enough time to my painting… At the end of our evening with Ruth she did persuade me to promise her a self-portrait for her collection although I had never painted one previously.’
In a lengthy note which accompanied the painting (sent to Ruth from Redhill, Surrey in June 1963), White wrote:
“I have worked at it in a variety of contrasting moods and depressions, hoping to arrive at or approach the truth. The people who have seen it so far have been highly critical of it – they almost go so far as to say they think I have painted someone else… I am not interested in mere surface appearances; it is easy enough to follow just the shapes and outlines of a ‘face’. A self-portrait should be much more but can you get near the truth by being subjective and uncompromising? – as I believe I have been… The self-examination involved is interesting but not something I like – I don’t like the result but it’s there.”
The self-portrait shows a strong-featured man in his early thirties with a luxuriantly quiffed head of greying black hair. He wrote to Ruth, ‘Calm serenity was never one of my attributes’, and it certainly is not an attribute of this ‘subjective and uncompromising painting’. Turning his head to look at his reflection, his forehead puckers as he strains to see himself. This would have been a very hard pose to keep up.
His choice of the word ‘depressions’ in his note to Ruth is significant. He gives himself the hard and gloweringly orange cold shoulder: the motions and postures of a troubled man. Though his look is gloomy and nervous, the expressive power of the painting seems to convey a sense of latent animal vigour and imaginative resilience.