Dorothy Mead


'[Mead]'s work… seemed challenging, radical and heroic.'

No correspondence between Dorothy Mead and Ruth Borchard survives. However, in a 1964 letter, the painter and art critic Andrew Forge, referring to his forthcoming visit to Ruth in Reigate, asked: ‘May I bring a painter friend, Dorothy Mead, who expressed a great desire to see your collection as she had heard about it from other artists?’

It seems likely that Ruth bought Mead’s self-portrait in 1964, or soon after.

Born in London in 1928, Dorothy Mead was about thirty-two years old when she painted this self-portrait. Above a tall, slender, firm neck, the head – which has features strongly yet delicately abstracted – radiates gentle authority. Here is an upfront, sensitive, questioning presence without a hint of arrogance.

The picture is composed of very broad brushstrokes of mostly understated colours with, here and there, a more vibrant frisson: a swathe of orange around her left eye, a purple patch above and at the top of her forehead. The brushstrokes seem freshly deliberated – around the bottom of the neck, for example, is a zigzagging grey brushstroke, its genesis still thrillingly clear to the eye. A vivid sense of overall structure (what Bomberg famously called ‘the spirit in the mass’) predominates.

Mead was a sixteen year-old student at Dagenham School of Art when she first encountered Bomberg. She followed him as a student to the City Literary Institute in London, and then to the Borough Polytechnic. Then ‘as a mature student [at the Slade from 1956-9] and practiced disciple of Bomberg’s – … an entirely unknown, uncelebrated and isolated figure’ (in Mario Dubsky’s words), Mead inspired many younger artists, including Dennis Creffield and Patrick Procktor. ‘Under the mentorship of Dorothy Mead’, wrote Dubsky, ‘whose work… seemed challenging, radical and heroic… I wholeheartedly subscribed to the Bombergian approach.’

During her lifetime Mead did not have a single one-person exhibition. She lived impecuniously for most of her adult life. Nevertheless her reputation in the English art world remained high for many years until her death in 1975. Her retrospective exhibition at London’s Boundary Gallery in 2005 of landscapes, cityscapes and perceptive self-portraits show just what a radical and humane talent, and brilliantly original colourist, she was.