Dennis Creffield was born in London in 1931. His self-portrait in oils is signed and dated 1959; the artist was then a twenty-eight year old student at the Slade School of Fine Art. Creffield had been fortunate enough to attend David Bomberg’s painting classes at the Borough Polytechnic in London from 1948-51. In 1988 Creffield remarked:
‘Thank God, I was brought to study with David Bomberg when I was only sixteen, and he made me realise that you don’t have to think things up; that one lives in a world of imagination.’
The self-portrait is strongly influenced by Bomberg without being derivative. It conjures up a youthful, floppy-haired figure of gentleness, warmth and shyness. Its curiously evanescent, indeterminate features are encompassed within a robustly drawn head, above a vigorously defined neck and solid though slender shoulders. The colours are muted to the point of muddiness, but saved from dispiriting drabness by the softly radiant pink-fleshed face, neck and (below what may be a bow-tie, simply evoked by four broad brushstrokes) oddly exposed upper chest.
As a teacher, Bomberg rejected totally the traditional English academic approach – which he described once as ‘corruption in the name of Drawing – the “hand and eye” disease’. Instead, he encouraged draughtsmanship where, he said,
‘the hand works at high tension and organises as it simplifies, reducing to bare essentials, stripping all irrelevant matter obstructing the rapidly forming organisation which reveals the design. This is the drawing.’
Certainly, Creffield’s self-portrait strips away all irrelevancies, revealing the artist’s essential youthful self: a warm, gentle, reticent yet incisively searching presence.
In Creffield’s later work – notably his charcoal drawings, such as his 1987 series depicting English cathedrals, and dozens more studies of French cathedrals (made in 1990) – his hand evidently worked at high tension, simplifying all the time to reveal the essential design, the irreducible drawing. His cathedral drawings – containing, like his early self-portrait, both definitive muscular structure and at times an awesome featurelessness (and the inevitable tension between these two extremes) – may be called, in the truest sense, portraits. Great cathedrals are, he acknowledges, ‘almost impossible to draw’.