John O’Connor wrote to Ruth Borchard in 1963:
‘I am sending a self portrait as promised… My wife comments that it is a good likeness if a little harsh and unkind. I personally am not unpleased by it.’
It is signed and dated in pencil (in a small box drawn over his shirt, a few inches below his heart) ‘John O’Connor 1963’. Born in Leicester in 1913, he would have been about fifty years old, yet, with his full head of dark, tousled hair, he appears at first sight much younger, boyish even. Yet the very lightly scribbled lines across his forehead, and a tautness about the features, the strangely transfixed, slightly exaggerated dark eyes and rather pursed lips, show that this is an older man, subject to an element of nervous strain.
Drawn mainly in black crayon and pencil, with a variegated overlay of yellow (and some brown) oil paint mixed with turpentine, this is a curiously ambiguous self-portrait. There is an improvisatory air to the drawing of the slim, still boyish figure and casually open-necked shirt, even to the more delicately modelled facial features. It is a picture infused with heart-warming sunniness yet one in which the artist seems perhaps resigned to growing old.
O’Connor attended Leicester School of Art from 1931-4, before studying at London’s Royal College from 1934-7. Jeannie O’Connor wrote (around 1989): ‘John Nash and Eric Ravilious were tutors in the Design School, and Paul Nash also visited.’ Initially O’Connor found etching ‘a subject fraught with difficulties.’ Then one day, he tried out some old engraving tools belonging to a fellow student. ‘Eric Ravilious, walking through the studio, observed casually what was going on, and [said] “Why not go to Lawrence [an old London premises where trade engravers used to get their wood] and buy a set of tools and get on with it?”’ This, O’Connor did. ‘As well as a boxwood block, John bought a spitsticker, scorper and chisel, all of which are still in use half a century later.’
Many of O’Connor’s wood-engravings over the years – with echoes of work in that medium by Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden and Gertrude Hermes – as well as many paintings reflect the pristine vision of early boyhood, celebrating a bucolic or domestic idyll, in which people are seen to participate intimately in nature’s harmonious patternings.