Hugo Powell wrote many letters to Ruth Borchard from his home address in Reigate, Surrey, during a period in the 1950s and 60s when he rented a studio in nearby Redhill from her (Ruth herself was also then living in Reigate). In 2001, Powell wrote of Ruth: ‘We met in Reigate not long after the War, & so began a long and warm friendship that lasted until her death. She bought the first (& sometimes I think) the best of many abstract woodcarvings I’ve made in my career… THE LIGHT SEEKER in boxwood.’
Powell’s self-portrait, made when he was about thirty-six years old, is, he says, ‘the only relief sculpture I’ve ever made, and the only self-portrait.’ His is not only the sole sculpture in Ruth Borchard’s self-portrait collection, but also the only work here in full profile. It was originally modelled in clay and then cast in bronzed fibre glass (bronze dust mixed into a resinous layer in the mould). He sees in it the influence of his tutor, Harold J. Youngman, ‘a stickler for absolute realism’, at Hornsey Art School in the late 1930s. The relief profile head has a long history. It has antecedents in classical Greek friezes, coinages from ancient times onwards, Renaissance-period wax-cast medallions, etc; eighteenth-century European sculptors sought the highest degree of representational likeness.
Powell has attempted here a severely dispassionate record of his appearance. His still, serious countenance seems masked of emotion, the eyes unseeing, yet the intricately rendered folds and crevices of flesh, lines around the mouth and on the forehead, suggest a face deeply scored by experience.
Hugo Powell was born in Reading. As a teenager, he visited the sculptor Eric Gill in his studio, and also Eric Kennington while he was working on a sculptural commission in Dorset. At Hornsey, despite his tutor’s insistent predilection for realism, he developed an interest in ‘revolutionary, under-the-counter sculpture’, including a passionate admiration for Henri Gaudier-Brzeska.
Since the early 1970s, Powell’s work has been increasingly abstracted, in various media, including terracotta, bronze, limestone, yew, beech, mulberry and curious found objects, ‘things hijacked from their normal usage’, as he has described them. His later sculptures affirm an ecstatically direct, though at times obliquely, humorous perception of nature, often enriched by personal symbolic associations, and universal symbols from the artist’s extensive knowledge of literature, religion and art.