David Graham painted his 1950 self-portrait when he was living in ‘a very dark room in Euston – at seven shillings and ninepence a week – in a building that was condemned.’ Born in London in 1926, Graham was then about twenty-four years old. ‘A very dark room in Euston’ is a poetically apt location for a painter influenced by Sickert and then the Euston Road School. Graham portrays himself as a slender, serious-minded youth with a rather noble-looking head. The treatment of the green-tinged background and the artist’s yellow-and-ruddy skin is richly painterly.
Almost expressionless, the artist’s countenance exudes gentle melancholy. He appears to be a young man whose look has softened somewhat into the slightly wary abstractedness of those who are at once innately shy and deeply perceptive. The loose black tie, white shirt and brown jacket half resemble a standard poet’s garb but also the kind of ‘floppy dung-coloured garment’ that the novelist Colin MacInnes (a few years later) said characterised male attire at the time, epitomised by the ‘demobilisation suit’.
At the age of only thirteen, Graham was a full-time student at Hammersmith School of Art. In 1943 he studied at St. Martin’s College of Art in London. In late 1944, he joined the Grenadier Guards, but was soon transferred to ‘Stars in Battledress’ to design and make scenery. From 1948-51, he studied at the Royal College of Art.
In 1953 Graham painted an exceptionally fine picture, A Room in Euston; the setting is his gas-lit bed-sitting room. A plump, bearded man in hat and overcoat – in life, an elderly Russian gentleman – sits on a chair. A woman stands at a canvas on an easel. At the right a youngish black man stands. Another young woman sits by him on a couch, and a girl lies on the bed. (These in life were twin sisters, painting students). The walls are nearly bare. Graham painted the sitters individually and separately, uniting them in the overall composition. This may help explain not only the atmosphere of nervous isolation in the room, but also each sitter’s meditative dignity.
Though freer in handling of paint and radically higher in light voltage than he was used to as a young painter, his 1980s paintings made in Israel – portraits of young Bedouin men, a Coptic priest, a young Arab woman – reach back to the poignant, introverted portraiture of Graham’s early days in Euston and Chelsea.