Writing in 2002, Albert Herbert set out his ‘rather uncertain memories’ of his self-portrait acquired by Ruth Borchard in 1959. She had written to him ‘asking if I had an “early” self portrait for sale… I did not… but I thought I would do one quite quickly on an odd piece of board … I really did think she wanted an “early” portrait so I may have tried to make myself look younger but I was about 34 and I made an attempt to make the picture look old and battered – looking back on it now this seems absurd but perhaps I enjoyed the challenge of faking an “early” picture!’
For those aware only of Herbert’s later ‘religious’ paintings (pictures from the mid-1980s onwards drawn in a childlike, magically ‘naïve’ manner), the artist’s self-portrait – dating, it seems, from 1959 but, in the artist’s own words, ‘reputed (!) to have been painted 1949-52’ when he was a student at the Royal College of Art – may not seem recognisably his. Yet all his work seems rooted in a mystical search for identity.
Herbert appears here as a young man still coming to terms with himself and the world. Though he peers straight at us, his look, accentuated by nearly-pursed lips, is hesitant and elusive. The picture’s ostensibly conservative palette contains moving nuances of colour and tone. Light reflections on Herbert’s face propel us to the dazzling right backdrop. Similarly, the darker facial tones relate to the dark backdrop to the left. The electric blue of his sweater brings a heightened note to an introverted picture – like a glimpse of brilliant blue sky or water in parched landscape.
Herbert was born in London in 1925. In 1944, he participated as an infantryman in the second wave of Normandy landings; around three-quarters of the soldiers around him were killed or wounded as they moved on to Germany. Demobbed in 1947, he studied at Wimbledon College of Art, and then at the Royal College, where he realised he ‘intuitively wanted to make figurative, emotive, symbolic paintings’. A 1952 painting, Children Playing – muted in colour, tentative in tone, a graceful, playful celebration of childhood in an austere, urban setting – was partly influenced by Herbert’s impression of Francis Bacon’s paintings in the latter’s studio near the Royal College.
Herbert’s late biblically-inspired paintings possess a rare, pristine simplicity, imbued with subtle, complex allusions, that took nearly a lifetime to uncover.