Bernard Dunstan was born in Teddington, Middlesex in 1920. His self-portrait, painted in his early forties, is an uncompromising portrayal of a sensitive and gentle-seeming man, perhaps somewhat reticent and guarded. The bespectacled gaze and lean, astringent features (notably the pursed lips and tensed brow), communicate an attitude of determination and persistence, with shadows under the eyes indicating a certain nervous tension.
Dunstan has written how at the Byam Shaw School of Art in London, in 1939, his tutor Alan Gwynne-Jones
‘was the first teacher of painting whose comments on tone, warm and cool colours, and how a neutral grey could be made to look warm or cold according to what was put around it, were an eye-opener to me.’
In his self-portrait, primarily made up of greys and muted flesh tones, the deliberately attenuated colour – extending to his blue-grey jacket and pale olive, open-necked shirt – does not serve to bleach the picture of personality, but rather to make each ‘neutral grey element, warm or cold according to what was put around it’. Thus his forehead and the left side of his face, catching the light, appear extremely lucid, even though the skin is rendered low in tone. By contrast, the grey tone shadowing his right side and his chin appears cool to the extreme.
He has also recalled that
‘at the Slade [where he studied from 1939-41, in Oxford, to which the London art school had been evacuated] I acquired likings which have remained with me ever since… Rembrandt and Turner, Renoir and Sickert, Steer, Bonnard and Vuillard. Common to all these is a richness and beauty in the matière, or the quality of the paint surface.’
In 1949 he married the painter Diana Armfield. For a time they lived and worked in a large studio room in London’s Belsize Park: ‘We slept and ate in an alcove at one end of the studio. We were very happy there, and it was not long before I was painting and drawing Diana for as long as she could sit – a process that has gone on with hardly a break to this day.’
In his small-scale paintings (of subjects such as a female nudes, musicians, and people in a café) over the years, Dunstan manages, paradoxically, both to remain aloof and to be intimately absorbed in his subject matter.