George Hooper’s self-portrait is inscribed verso: ‘Painted in 1946 from a drawing made while having my hair cut.’ Hooper lived in Redhill in Surrey, not far from Ruth in Reigate, and it is likely they met socially.
Hooper was born in India in 1910. His father had left England for India as a young man to work as a printer and auditor. He met and married a young Eurasian woman. As a child, George was adored by his mother, but after his move to England (at the age of twelve), she became a shadowy figure in his life, seldom talked about. He seems to have suffered from a dichotomy between his Indian and English roots, between elements of staid conservatism and exotic vibrancy in his life – a psychological conflict which he perhaps sought to resolve in his increasingly colourful art.
Hooper was about thirty-six years old when he painted this self-portrait. His sober, genial yet slightly uneasy look captures the sometimes cosily familiar, sometimes disquieting sensation when, momentarily, we come face to face with ourselves in the mirror.
Here, Hooper evokes exactly the slightly bowed, vulnerable yet trusting posture of the typical seated customer – shrouded in a barber’s gown, passive to the barber’s instruments. The barber himself – eyes hidden behind horn-rimmed glasses – concentrates on the task in hand. In contrast to both the barber, self-absorbed with comb and scissors, and a casually downcast customer in the background, Hooper looks out of the picture frame, challenging his mirrored image. The stark, overhanging bulb casts white light on top of his thick, black hair, all over the protective sheet, seeming to frost up the barber’s glasses. Hooper’s face is mostly in film-noirish shadow.
The art historian James Beechey’s comment on Hooper as a man and artist, is useful when considering this picture:
‘By nature amiably reserved, charming and well-mannered, he nevertheless stood out… His art has a ruthlessness not immediately apparent, for he was undeterred by the struggle to reach the right solution.’
Hooper studied at the Slade School from 1931-2, then at the Royal Academy Schools, from which he graduated in 1935. In a late oil self-portrait (c.1980) – full of fresh, brilliant colours – Hooper lucidly, even ruthlessly probes his persona as an ‘amiably reserved man’.