Born in Manchester in 1919, Cliff Holden was around twenty-eight when he painted his 1947 self-portrait. He had been ‘consciously searching for a master’, and had had the good fortune to find one of genius in the painter David Bomberg three years earlier.
Bomberg taught that good painting, founded on structured drawing and a formal disciplined approach, nevertheless aspires to evoke ‘something that is boundless & infinite’. Certainly, Holden’s self-portrait is firmly structured yet goes far beyond mere outward form to partake perhaps of ‘something that is boundless & infinite’.
The overall composition is dynamic and tight-knit, the colours earthy but shot through with light, the brushstrokes applied with sensual vigour, the face forceful and inspiring. Holden has taken great risks in the free yet determined way he evokes the shadowed side of the nose, the stretch of illuminated forehead and cheek, the thick, dark hair. His right eye is seen perhaps to focus on the viewer; the left is a black mark, its apparent pupil a large speck of brown. The area beneath the mouth and around the chin is hard to ‘read’ in an academic sense: maybe (as in a 1960 photograph of the artist) there is a slight hint of a beard and he is smoking a pipe.
In a 1960 catalogue preface, the painter and art critic Andrew Forge quoted Holden as saying:
‘What a painter has to do is not to recognise either the object or the image but to recognise the kind of sensation that has produced the image.’
A 1948 painting by Holden evokes, through a range of dark brown and olive tones, the most delicately graceful stance. Light coming through what seems to be a greyish window falls on the side of the head in a fragile golden line – the only brilliant note in a painting whose palette is remarkably gloomy.
It was in 1944, while studying philosophy at London’s City Literary Institute, that Holden had first encountered David Bomberg, and also Bomberg’s pupil and disciple, Dorothy Mead. Holden and Mead later went on to have a close personal relationship; they attended Bomberg’s classes at the Borough Polytechnic in 1945. In the same year Bomberg and Holden created the Borough Group. Holden was the Group’s President from 1946-8. Since 1956 Cliff Holden has lived and worked as a painter in Sweden.