'I have done about four self-portraits in oil so far and I’m not really pleased with any of them.'
There are five letters (written in 1965 and 1966) from Andrew Freeth to Ruth Borchard, from his home/studio in Middlesex. One informed her he had ‘done about four self-portraits in oil so far and I’m not really pleased with any of them.’ He proposed to work again soon. On 26th June 1966, he visited Ruth in Reigate, and ‘much enjoyed seeing your collection of self portraits’.
Freeth’s self-portrait was painted when he was fifty-four years old. The strongly modelled head in bold semi-profile is set against the domestic geometry of window panes, through which the presumably late spring or summer day filters. The garden view is abstracted into a delicate, vibrating impression of leaves, sunlight and earth. Sunlight illuminates Freeth’s balding head and high forehead, outlines his nose and highlights his cheekbones, and percolates onto the thick hair at the crown and sides of his head.
The strong cast of the head suggests resolute character. Freeth also appears as a man of exceptional sensitivity, yet there seems to be something emotionally frozen in the rather glassy, abstracted look, itself heightened by the pronounced shadow under the eye and the pursed, unyielding lips. His stern mien indicates a note of withheld or suppressed sadness and dissatisfaction, which the reflected light does little to alleviate. The contrast between the rigidity of his stance and the fluidity of natural colour and light permeating the picture, is poignant. The blood-red tie Freeth is wearing against a dark shirt, adds a vivid, resonant accent.
Stephen Wildman has written that ‘Freeth suffered a period of intense depression in the late 1960s, but had the strength of character to endure and indeed work through it’. His 1966 self-portrait may thus be seen in some way to portend this depression.
Born in Birmingham in 1912, he attended the School of Art there, half a day a week during adolescence, becoming a full-time student in 1929. During the war, as a member of the Intelligence Corps at an Interrogation Centre near Cairo, he drew dispassionate portraits of bitterly aloof, war-hardened German and Italian officers. His 1959 pencil portrait of the writer Alan Sillitoe (National Portrait Collection) unites superb, unshowy technical abilities with real perceptiveness.