Tom McGuiness painted this self-portrait in 1959 for Ruth Borchard. She paid fifteen guineas. He was around thirty-two years old though, at first sight, the thick, glossy head of hair and trim, rugged features seem to indicate a man perhaps in his mid-twenties. Closer perusal highlights an expression of pained enquiry on somewhat worn features, especially communicated through the eyes and the slightly down-turned mouth. Here is a man in whom a strong sense of identity – conveyed partly through dynamic black outlines – co-exists with acute perceptiveness. His complexion is a subtle and fluid admixture of all the other colours in the picture, bringing them all together into a disquieting ‘map of the face’.
Born in 1926 in County Durham, McGuinness was brought up in his coal-miner grandfather’s household. His talent for drawing was recognised early and encouraged at school. In 1944, he was ‘conscripted’ to work in the local coal mines as a Bevin Boy. A mining supervisor, on seeing McGuinness drawing on the side of a coal tub, advised he attend evening art classes. He began to attend local art exhibitions, and was especially impressed by Turner and Daumier, and began to read about artists such as Dürer, Goya and Rembrandt. He left the coal industry in 1947 to work on the railways, and the following year began painting in earnest.
A turning point was a decision in 1953 not to take up a commercial art career in southern England but to return to work as a coal-miner, painting and drawing in his spare time. He worked as a miner until 1983, all the time portraying – in sketches (made compulsively as soon as the day underground was over), oils, drawings, and latterly, prints – the desolate comradeship of wiry, huddling miners caged in narrow seams, many of them observed strenuously hewing at the coal face.
One of his rare self-portraits – a fresh and sketchy 1950s picture painted on the back of a finished oil painting – is a moving study of a sensitive young man. The delicate line marking the contours of his head is beautifully wrought, and the painting of his electric-blue cardigan and a lemon yellow background, shows an early predilection for strong, expressionistic colours. His 1959 self-portrait portends a growing tendency for glazed, luminescent greens and yellows seen in his later portrayal of miners working underground – a visionary iridescence in the gloom.