Eric Waugh was born in 1929, and studied at Croydon School of Art and the Royal College of Art. His self-portrait was painted around 1962; he was in his early thirties. ‘When I left the R.C.A. [in 1953] I started teaching at Reigate School of Art [Ruth Borchard herself then lived in Reigate]. At this time I was painting dark landscapes with some influence of Constant Permeke [the Belgian Expressionist painter]. Later I was into ton-up boys [motor-bikers] and cars, very dark and influenced by Josef Herman [the Polish-born painter]. These I exhibited at Roland, Browse and Delbanco [the London gallery where Herman also exhibited]… When Ruth Borchard asked me to do a self-portrait I tried to do it using my typical subject matter at that time, as I was not a portrait painter.’
Two self-portraits collected by Ruth – George Hooper watching himself in a barbershop mirror; Waugh seeing himself reflected in the internal car mirror – stand out for their imaginatively wrought utilitarian settings. Waugh’s big, black eyes, thick, black eyebrows and hair against gaunt, pale features, are tersely framed in reflected close-up. The dramatic lighting and shadowings here are reminiscent of those in German Expressionist art and film, and in more contemporary film noir.
The oncoming car on the other side of the road – with its sexless, silhouetted driver and front seat passenger, and its brilliant headlights (resembling dual suns or even two bedazzling lamps in an interrogation session) – illuminates Waugh’s startled, haunted look and the mirrored car interior. The two crimson back lights on the car in front appear as bloody warning symbols. We are reminded just how vulnerable a person in a car at night can be.
The roadside speed sign and the white road markings help delineate rational limits to both the outer and inner journeys on this dark, minatory night. This is a complex, ingenious composition, full of circular and squarish semi-abstracted forms. It is a picture in which movement and stasis co-exist – for example, Waugh’s face is frozen in the headlights, yet both vehicles appear to be moving forward.
After painting a series of pictures of ‘ton-up boys and cars’, Waugh went on to paint ‘runners, then a very long period of horse-racing’ – with kinetic details, such as galloping equine legs, delineated with strident angularity.