'The shadows I/ Wandered where truth was thickest.’
Between 1964-6, Robert Morgan wrote five letters to Ruth Borchard, from Portsmouth. In the third, he discussed his recent visit to Ruth in Reigate:
‘I enjoyed looking at the portraits. I feel stimulated and eager to go ahead with more painting. Emil Nolde colours are in my head. What a powerful painter he is. Do you like Alexis Jawlensky? ‘
In the next letter, he wrote again of Nolde:
‘It seems his emotional power overflows in his sophisticated use of colour. To me this is the only real way to paint. It is the way I feel about my subject of mining in South Wales.’
Born in 1921 in the mining village of Penrhiwceiber, Mid-Glamorgan, South Wales, Robert Morgan was about thirty-seven when he painted this 1958 self-portrait in gouache. His raw, suffering yet benignly gentle look may bring to mind portraits by Symbolists, Fauvists and Expressionists.
Urgent in tone, this picture is nevertheless intricately composed and full of ingenious painterly effects – such as furrows in the brow etched into the paint perhaps with the wooden brush tip.
With its rugged black verticals with occasional vivid patches of pink, indigo and white, the background resembles some contemporary abstract painting. To those acquainted with Morgan’s youth as a coal miner, and also to his paintings of mines and dark mining villages (into which sunlight is seen dramatically – yet sparsely – to percolate), the self-portrait’s coal-black backdrop evokes ‘the shadows I/ Wandered where truth was thickest’ (as he wrote in a poem).
In the autobiography of his early life, My Lamp Still Burns (published in 1981), he describes the village collieries (subject of many future paintings) ‘with their tall, black, iron towers and paraphernalia of sheds, cabins, tramshops, blacksmith’s shops, screens for coal cleaning, winding gears, engine houses.’ He also describes following his father into the mines, aged fourteen, for his first, disorientating shift: ‘… it is not easy for anyone who has never been employed in such work to visualise the scene of a low-seam coal-face with the doubled-up figure of a miner cutting coal with a mandrel, or to understand precisely the feeling of utter exhaustion of several hours of continuous labour in semi-darkness in such confined spaces.’