Born in Coventry, Edwin La Dell made his name as a printmaker and had a considerable influence on the post-1945 revival of print-making among British artists. His self-portrait, with its expressionistic palette and its strident melancholy, therefore may come as a surprise, a shock even, to those accustomed to his lyrical illustrations and lithographs in the style of les peintres-gravures inspired by Vollard. Yet La Dell practised as a painter as well as a lithographer and teacher for much of his life. He was the son of two still-life painters, Ellen La Dell and Thomas La Dell, and he studied at Sheffield College of Art, and then at the Royal College of Art under Gilbert Spencer, the lithographer James Fitton and also Barnett Freedman (himself an early pioneer of the revival in colour lithography, and a fine illustrator).
La Dell’s self-portrait is undated; it may have been painted c.1960 when he was in his mid-forties. It is a composition with three main sections: the figure of the artist in the left foreground, with his head set against a dark background; the mid-right aspect of an enticingly empty bentwood chair on a sunny balcony; and, lower-right, a ‘full-on’ depiction of a canvas showing a landscape which the artist was presumably working on at the time.
The painter meets us out of the corner of his eye, his naturally high-pitched eyebrows seemingly raised even further in a casually sceptical way. His lean face takes on a rather noble appearance, the line of the cheekbone down to the chin finely ‘sculpted’. But it is a face also seemingly shadowed by unknown psychological currents (all those blue shadowings across the features) as well as one illumined maybe by a fierce, inner psychic stream indicated by those streaks of orange and red. As a friend recollected after his death, La Dell characteristically wore a ‘stern frown belied by a general aspect of wonderful benevolence’.
In 1948 La Dell became senior tutor in the print-making department of the Royal College of Art. At this time he made a series of tenderly domestic lithographs, which, in their abstracted expanses of pale, delicately modulated colour tones interspersed with vibrant high notes, read like versions of Bonnard or Vuillard set in austere, late-40s Britain, a country seemingly intent on recovering its cosy, homely patina after the drab, exacting war years .