Alex Portner


Alex Portner’s wry self-portrait is undated though signed with a painted monogram (the letter A set above P). Born in Berlin, son of a Russian mother and a Polish-Jewish father, he was forty-three in 1963 (the year he corresponded with Ruth Borchard) and it is possible that this picture was painted then, especially for Ruth. Here, every wrinkle, every ‘mark of weakness, mark of woe’ is emphatically delineated. The deeply etched lines around his eyes appear to form a kind undulating landscape. Under his left eye alone, one can count five separate lines or fissures, with up to half a dozen separate so-called ‘laughter’ lines as tributaries. The artist’s features have been somewhat emphasised, even cariacatured. His white hair is prominently painted. There are sumptuous background notes of melding pink and green; the range of blues for his ‘sports’ shirt endow the picture with a cool vigour.

Given the artist’s German background and artistic training, the picture’s expressionist character is not surprising. According to a biographical sketch in a 1970 London exhibition catalogue: ‘He studied under Kaus in Berlin and Thiemann in Leipzig, later moving to study at Les Beaux Arts in Paris (also studying art for a time in Amsterdam). He fled to England in 1939 and after serving with the British Army was granted British nationality.’

In the same catalogue, there is a photograph of the artist, his weary-looking head supported by his hand, his eyes looking obliquely away. Severe lighting casts dark shadows over his left cheek, while illuminating his eyes, nose, hand, prominent, deeply-lined forehead and wispy white hair.

The comic actor and Carry On film star Sid James – with his endearingly expressive, exceptionally mobile, wrinkled features – was the subject of an undated, oil on canvas portrait (of predominantly acidic, appropriately acerbic yellow and green hues) by Portner, in which James’s actor’s persona of sly charm and quicksilver worldliness as well as an evident personal mix of attack and vulnerability, are brilliantly evoked.