There is one letter from Carel Weight to Ruth Borchard. Dated ‘7th July, 1961’, it is headed ‘ROYAL COLLEGE OF ART, School of Painting PROFESSOR CAREL WEIGHT, A.R.A., RBA, London SW7’. The letter begins:
‘I can let you have a very early self-portrait for twenty guineas. This work was painted somewhere about 1930 and was, in fact, shown in the Academy 1931 (my first exhibited picture). The picture is at the moment at the Royal College of Art, Exhibition Road… I wondered if you were passing some time you would like to come and see it…’
Weight, who was born in London in 1908, would have been about twenty-two when he painted this picture. He depicts himself with a slightly bouffant hairstyle (with one lock casually falling over his forehead) at a time when, as the novelist/painter Denton Welch (a young student contemporary of Weight’s at Goldsmith’s School of Art in the early 1930s) noted, barbers invariably made sarcastic comments about unruly ‘haystacks’ if their male clients’ hair showed even modest growth. This, along with the round, metal-rimmed ‘specs’ over painfully self-conscious eyes and high-necked, vivid-red jersey, help mark out Weight as a sensitive young aesthete. (Similar details are present, along with the full red lips, in another self-portrait – now in the National Portrait Gallery Collection – from about the same date, showing Weight as a slim, delicate youth, holding in his hand a vase of flowers, with a lithe, sexually ambiguous figure on it.)
The pouting lips here make a self-exploratory moue in which the artist appears to be flirting with the idea of his own budding sensuality. The scarlet of his jersey seems to evoke his physical and imaginative vivacity. Yet his quite studied pose seems to hint that the artist is half in love with and half terrified by what his look might uncover.
In 1947 Weight started teaching at the Royal College of Art, and was Professor of Painting there from 1957-73. He is primarily known for his metaphysically charged narrative paintings, in which human figures are often pictured as claustrophobically stranded by, or fleeing from, unknown dramas in sinister suburban streets or rooms, or in gardens at dusk. A 1974 Portrait of the Artist in a Cold Studio, shows Weight muffled in overcoat and hat, peering straight at us (no longer looking askance as in early self-portraits). An incipient smile is inhibited by the sheer coldness of the day.