Francis Newton Souza was born in Goa in 1924. His father died when he was an infant, and he moved with his mother to Bombay aged four. In 1940 he joined the Sir JJ School of Art there but was expelled in 1945 for left-wing views. He sailed to London with his wife Maria in 1949; he was astonished by the post-war ‘grimness of Britain’. His early London years were penurious, but his first exhibition in 1955 was a success. In 1967 he settled in New York, and continued to exhibit internationally. In 1993 the Tate Gallery bought his 1959 painting of a Crucifixion. He died in 2002.
There is one letter from Souza to Ruth Borchard (dated ‘6.5.63.’) from his home in north-west London.
‘I’ll be delighted to be represented in your collection. I’m not a very good self-portrait painter even though some critics think I’ve got an inflated ego. However, I have done one or two self portraits in my time and the problem is which one you’d like to have.’
Ruth paid twenty guineas for the self-portrait – dated 1961, when the artist was around thirty-seven years old.
It is a humane and compassionate picture, at once a graceful and grotesque apocalyptic vision of self. At first sight, it appears spikily rebarbative in its details, urgently provocative in its use of colour. Yet the effect softens, and poignant, mournful, comic notes are discerned. One soon realises how vibrant the colours are, without being at all garish.
The wispy moustache has comically elongated, handlebar proportions. What appears to be a beard (which photos show Souza then had) has turned into what might jokily be interpreted as a necklace hanging from his moustache and then around a scrawny neck. The sides of the face are at decidedly odd, choppy angles, and the gentle, anguished eyes (one pink, one yellow) are seen to be popping out the top of his forehead. The black hair is fortified by sharp, wedge-like structures, appearing to grow organically out of his flesh – which calls to mind Christ’s Crown of Thorns.
In an outrageously humorous, bourgeois-baiting 1961 catalogue note, he wrote:
‘I have everything to use at my disposal. I leave discretion, understatement, discrimination to the finicky and the lunatic fringe. In any case, I have never counted the number of teeth I’ve drawn in grinning mouths. So what of a few extra eyes, fingers, etc….?’