Euan Uglow was born in London in 1922, and lived there all his life. Ruth Borchard paid £21 for his self-portrait. If, as seems likely, the picture was painted around 1964, the artist would have been in his early thirties. In contrast to Uglow’s larger paintings from this period (where the individual brushstroke is rarely discernible), here the painterly treatment appears more urgent and immediate.
Uglow was known for insistently measuring up each picture, so that each brushstroke, as his model Celia Lyttelton has put it, ‘was the result of tireless study, aided by plumblines, calipers, magnifying glasses and rulers’. Such analytical passion was partly inherited from his teacher at Camberwell School of Art (where he studied from 1948-51), William Coldstream, and also from his love of Italian Renaissance painters such as Masaccio, and from painters like Poussin and Cézanne.
In his self-portrait, Uglow seems to have measured up proportions of his mirrored image onto the board. But networks of vestigial lines marking horizontal and vertical starting-points (as seen in his larger paintings) are absent here. The picture was painted quickly, and the subject didn’t have the chance to move his pose about much.
The picture appears craftsmanlike yet retains real spontaneity. His look is somewhat wild, shy, kind, slightly fearsome even. His bearded, balding, monk-like appearance conveys a certain ascetic grandeur and a measure of defiance. The four-square pose and the mesmerising eyes seem to communicate a state of self-absorption born, paradoxically, out of self-detachment.
The muddy background tones (reminiscent of the Euston Road School palette) are like those shadowing the eyes – making his muted-pink flesh appear almost radiant in comparison. The red demarcating the top of his nose seems almost comically pronounced, as if the result of some fresh studio skirmish with red paint.
In his paintings of female nudes (and still lifes of fruit and, even once, toothbrushes) from the late 1970s onwards, colour contrasts are exhilaratingly novel and inventive. In a painting, Mandi (1985-89), the poignant, blanched figure of a girl seen with her head resting serenely in her hands, is set against a piercing emerald green backdrop. Uglow’s perfectionism meant that he rarely finished more than two major oil paintings a year.