Anthony Eyton was born in Teddington, Middesex in 1923. From 1947-50, he studied at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts where he was tutored by Professor William Coldstream. The measured yet intuitive tones of Eyton’s broodingly dark 1964-65 self-portrait (acquired by Ruth Borchard) made when he was forty-one, evoke Coldstream’s influence; Eyton has said: ‘We were… taught the discipline of how to give some certainty to looking… a certainty through measuring.’ It took him a number of years to ‘throw over’ the constraints of a Camberwell training. A visit to Greece in 1955 helped endow his palette with a new dimension of pristine light – an element strongly if subtly evident in Eyton’s 2011 self-portrait, made when he was eighty-eight. Contemplating this picture now, Eyton still recalls Coldstream’s perceptive advice to his young student: ‘Look at the space and air behind and in front of you and round about.’
Eyton says he tends to paint self-portraits only very rarely. He finds his recent self-portrait much more definitively and keenly structured, less impressionistic, than the 1964 self-portrait, characterising the former as ‘quite specific in its rendering of detail but not photographic’. The setting is an alcove with a mirror (which he is facing) in a small greenhouse extension to his south London house.
As with all his paintings, he says, ‘the light is what sets me off. The light makes me want to paint really, it brings a glow to things. Then it’s a question of working with the light, and over a long period moving the paint and colour about. The self-portrait was not painted in one session, I was continually redrawing it over time to get it right. Overall continuous changes meant that the final picture took over twenty sessions to make.
‘I have an ambiguous look here – my wandering eye was slowly scanning the whole space; my approach was not at all like that of a Rembrandt looking at you directly. The eyes in the face changed a good deal during the long painting process, the aim of which was very much to achieve depth and resonance of feeling.
‘The light in the painting comes from the glass roof above, which illumines the top of my head and my beard, the painted white plank shelf in front of me (on which sits a bit of charcoal about five centimetres long) and the array of objects on the shelf behind me – what could be a vase with a handle on the left, the glistening globe itself (which is counterbalanced by the black-based object to the left) and, to the right, an indeterminate mass of black with yellow and red highlights that might be a plant or a suggestion of I don’t know what. To the left one glimpses the edge of a terracotta plant pot, and above two leaves – to the right of which is the flat plane of a white door, next to which is the side of the shelving unit.’
Eyton discusses the picture in terms of rhythms running with subtle dynamism through the composition and shapes counterbalancing one another. For him, ‘there is a line running from the black handle of the object on the shelf to the left to my right ear [on the viewer’s left] and then on to the globe on the other side. Similarly this dark object on the left is echoed by the mass of dark tones on the left hand-side of my jacket. These vertical forms – the side of the shelves behind and the shelf in front of me – seem informally to frame the figure, to frame myself.’ Eyton says he greatly admires Giacometti’s portraits for their focussed scrutiny of subjects over a period of time, distilled (and internally framed, as it were, within the scope of the composition) into what appears like an eternal, enigmatic moment.
There is perennial youthfulness about Eyton’s figure (with its weathered landscape of a face with searchingly melancholic eyes) in his blue denim jacket and checked shirt (the pattern of the latter rendered with almost abstract expressionist abandon – indeed Eyton has stated that seeing Abstract Expressionist paintings in New York c.1970 seemed to ‘open me up to a much wider, more fluid approach’). The painter Anthony Green has written that Eyton ‘always gives the impression of being able to draw at the speed of thought – be it beach, plant, bricks or flesh’. Such an approach is evident here in the swiftly deliberated brushwork throughout, with its glinting highlights – on the curving metallic bracket holding the globe, the beard, moustache and tousled grey hair and the luminous foreground shelf.
Forms and objects in this self-portrait contain a largely unconscious but still vital symbolism: the simple piece of charcoal as a tool of the artist’s trade; the leaves seemingly alluding to the centrality of nature and growth in Eyton’s art (as in a 1993 painting of a Wild Garden…in which ‘pitting myself against the leaves and branches, the intermeshing of light and dark…is the nearest I come to abstraction’); and the vibrant globe itself (revolving, as it were, with a kinetic flurry of brushtrokes) reminding the discerning viewer of Eyton’s exhilarating painting trips over many years to countries such as Italy, Greece, Israel, Canada, the United States and India.