Brian Rees was born in the 1930 in the small south Welsh town of Neath. His father was a coal miner. He was an art student for about ten years in all, studying at art schools in Swansea and London (with an intervening year as a Welsh steelworks’ clerk). At Camberwell School of Art, his tutors included Gilbert Spencer and Edward Ardizonne. At the Central School, he was taught print-making by Michael Rothenstein and Gertrude Hermes.
Ruth Borchard had first seen his pictures on display one Sunday (probably in 1963) on the railings in Bayswater Road in London. The dating of his self-portrait is somewhat problematic; though it is signed and dated 1955 in pencil, the artist much later was certain that it was made specially for Ruth in 1963. His two letters (from 1963) to Ruth illuminate his struggles:
‘Your commission came as a welcome ray of light to brighten my despondency. I’ve been working all this summer in a Steelworks Office and I have been out of contact with Art & people interested in it. Life is pretty dull down here with little to do except drink and the allure of London grows ever stronger by the day.’
Reminiscing in the early 2000s, Rees recognised his self-portrait has some affinities with 1950s’ Neo-Romantic art, notably that of Minton, Craxton and Ayrton. Yet this intensely scrutinising picture of the male form set against a stark two-toned background possesses a grittier, perhaps more socially realistic quality – akin less to the Neo-Romantics than to the English Kitchen School of painting – and also seems close in spirit to the hauntingly polished realism of Lucian Freud’s early 50s paintings.
This is a frank, beautifully drawn portrait of a youngish man in a sullen mood. Lines on the forehead, a day or so’s growth of beard, shadows around bleary eyes, as well as the sagging, crumpled vest revealing curlicues of hair on the chest and under his right arm – all contribute to a slightly hungover air of shyness and despondency. It could indeed be a portrait of some provincial still-Angry Young Man, from Alan Sillitoe’s novels or John Osborne’s plays.
In 1954, Rees illustrated the book cover of Dylan Thomas’s radio play Under Milk Wood. Thomas had died in November 1953. Rees’ amusing portraits of the mythical Welsh villagers of Llareggub – which reminded him of his native Neath – are incisively true to the text.