In late 1965, Ruth Borchard acquired, for twenty-one guineas, Myself, in a Bad Mood, signed ‘Clifford Hall 1942 Chelsea’. Rarely has ill temper been so dispassionately observed! The Prussian blue of the artist’s barely glimpsed shirt adds a subtly strident element to the conservative palette of greys, olives and browns. His head and upper torso are commandingly modelled; with his neat moustache and goatee beard, he looks distinguished. Yet he exudes melancholy, a certain barely suppressed anxiety, evoked especially by the rugged lines etched beneath hang-dog eyes, also round the nicely carved cheekbones and on his neck.
Born in 1904 in London, as a student at the Royal Academy Schools from 1926-8, he came under Sickert’s influence. He was often depressed by difficulties earning a living as a painter. In 1928, he and his friend Edwin John (son of Augustus) shared a studio in Paris. At first, as a poor art student in and around Montparnasse, Hall found something enthralling about his bohemian poverty. However, in a 1958 Journal entry, he remembered Gwen John’s advice to him when, as a young student, he told her he must soon leave Paris since his money was almost gone and he did not wish to take money from his parents. Gwen John almost shouted at him:
‘Young man, you should be ashamed of yourself. Remember this. If people help you they will do so because they like to and you have no obligation to them… Only this, do good work.’
He commented sadly in 1958:
‘Gwen John gave me the right advice thirty years ago. In theory I agreed, in practice I never gave it a chance. The accumulation is with me now.’
Harrowing experiences as a stretcher-bearer during the London Blitz no doubt help account for the desolate air so evident in his 1942 self-portrait. As George Melly has written, ‘Then in 1950, he recognised a certain sterility in what he was doing. He stopped painting for a year and drew. He recognised what he must do to express certain ideas which haunted him.’ His later paintings of faceless bathers on beaches shrouded in massive towels, girls suffocatingly ‘wrapped in polythene’, are bizarrely moving – in Melly’s words ‘genuinely “Surreal”.’