Alfred Daniels’ self-portrait, acquired by Ruth Borchard in 1958, is inscribed Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man 1950. He was twenty-six years old at the time, and in his final year as an undergraduate student at the Royal College of Art (where he studied from 1947-50, followed by postgraduate studies there in mural design from 1950-2).
Here, the human form is modelled with rigorous simplicity against an enchantingly askew red-brick wall. There is a characteristically shapely line sweeping all the way down from his thick head of hair to his elegant, white neck and slender shoulders. The concomitant line running from forehead to high cheekbone to nicely sculpted chin and delicate throat, is no less concise. This is the stance of a young man truly coming into his own, with evident native wit and a certain gentle diffidence. The slightly upraised right eyebrow – and the way that eye is represented larger than the other – helps give an impression of someone quite critically measuring up the world.
The artist has achieved a chalky, fresco-like effect. The palette balances a bold restraint – in the dark tones of sweater, shirt, eyes, bare bough and branches, and in the dazzlingly pallid complexion – with the muted exuberance of the wall’s variegated pinks and reds. This self-portrait shows an affinity with contemporary American Social Realist artists, notably Ben Shahn and Bernard Perlin.
Born in 1924 in London’s East End, Alfred Daniels has lived in London ever since. His subjects have included many London scenes – notably his marvellous yet not widely known mid-50s Hammersmith Town Hall mural paintings of boatmen on the Thames.
An early painting by Daniels, Sunday on the Grass (1951), depicts five beautifully contoured figures – three young men and two young women, as glimpsed by the artist one fine Sunday afternoon in London’s Hyde Park – sleepily at ease with heat, drink and fags, as well as a pre-Pop Art scene of film-star magazines and orange Penguin paperbacks littered around them. The picture deliciously conjures up the leisure and increasing consumerism of early 50s youth in its spare time.
In a major article in The Studio in July 1957, Charles Spencer wrote of Daniels that ‘the same qualities found on the canvas will be found in the man. He is an unaffected and natural individual, high-spirited, sociable, easy to know… [with] a balance between heart and mind.’