There are three letters (undated, but probably from 1964) from Alberto Morrocco to Ruth Borchard. In one, he wrote:
‘I have of course like most artists painted a self portrait from time to time … I haven’t yet had time to look among my things in the studio store… Should there be something which I think might be suitable I shall be pleased to let you have it at the figure you suggest [Ruth went on to pay £20] – and should there not I would also be pleased to paint one especially for your collection [which is what he did]. You know your request is almost impossible to refuse anyway – what artist could refuse such a double-edged appeal to his ego.’
Morrocco was born in Aberdeen in 1917 to Italian immigrant parents. He trained at Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen from 1932-8. Aged seventeen, he painted a self-portrait in an Old Master style. The picture shows the face full-on, its greenish-brown yet highlighted tones partly like those of the fields beyond. Full, reddish lips are echoed in the tones of the young man’s shirt. His look is ambiguously one of attack and defence, self-assurance and vulnerability.
Morrocco always brought to portraiture a much greater objective realism than to his other paintings. His 1964 self-portrait, acquired by Ruth, painted when he was forty-seven, has similar qualities to the 1934 self-portrait, yet notably accentuated. Its handling of paint is also much freer. The incipient surliness of the earlier work has now broken out into an overtly suffering, if somewhat self-dramatising, look – at once morose and withdrawn, yet defiant to the point of looking mock-bellicose. The forehead is now considerably furrowed, the bags under the eyes much more pronounced, and the full lips now turned downwards at the sides. The vivid red hat – a workaday, modern woollen hat but preciously reminiscent also of silken or velvet caps worn by Old Masters – forms an exhilarating contrast to the strong, plain green background.
Interviewed in 1993, Morrocco spoke of portraiture in general:
‘whether one paints in a purely objective way or… in a more abstract way or even in an expressionist way… you must make… not simply a psychic likeness or a vague spiritual likeness, but a physical likeness first… otherwise it really isn’t a portrait.’