In his 1965 self-portrait, Chares McCall has cast himself as the respectable professional artist in his studio (located ‘just behind Sloane Street and off Eaton Terrace’, as he wrote to Ruth) – standing by the easel, wearing a blue smock, brushes in hand, painting tools on the table in front. He looks suavely self-assured, nobly erect in bearing, with a fine white beard and neat, silvery hair, his features gentle and impassive. McCall was fifty-eight years old at the time, but, although he had achieved a successful career, continued to suffer from insecurities as an artist, which may have originated in adolescent struggles. David Coombs has written that
‘McCall was a shy man, quiet and reticent, characteristics not hidden even in later years by his tall and distinguished bearing’.
To the left of the artist is his easel painting apparently of a cathedral interior, its literal depths conjured up in rich greens, gold and browns, like those of an Italian Old Master. This painting within a painting suggests that in the artist’s rigorously ordered studio world, indeed within his own mind, lay disquieting, even transcendent qualities below the surface.
Curiously, McCall has ‘framed’ his own figure within a door or mirror frame, as if he himself was just another composition within the painting. Perhaps the artist is unconsciously acknowledging that he himself, at least in part, is his own creation.
There are painterly passages – notably the fresh still life on the table, with its white highlights, and the concentrated white, cadmium yellow and red on the tips of his brushes – reminiscent of the Scottish Colourists, notably his own college tutor S.J. Peploe.
Born in 1907 in Edinburgh, McCall ‘wanted to be an artist very early in life… my father would have none of it’. However, he won a Scholarship to Edinburgh College of Art – his time there interrupted by wartime service as a camouflage officer.
The theme McCall made his own is people absorbed in thought or work or daily tasks. His subjects included a woman at her sewing machine, a dark figure contrasting with the mesmerising yellow of the garment in hand; and The Jade Collector intently examining some precious object at a desk in the corner of a commodious drawing room.