Jack Millar’s self-portrait is, typically, a ‘sensitively personal’ (to use a critic’s phrase when discussing his special qualities) picture of the forty-three year old artist in front of his easel in his Dulwich, south London studio. It is a frankly austere work, perhaps a classic ‘mid-life reckoning’ picture, in which Millar’s ascetic appearance – balding head, lined forehead, lines under the eyes, mouth upturned slightly to his left, his rather angular leanness – is set out in a straightforward yet subtle manner. It is thinly painted in a well-modulated yet restricted palette. He appears at once both gritty and wary.
The self-portrait is divided into several abstract planes, representing the back wall, with a framed but largely unseen picture hanging there and the back and side of the canvas he is painting on. This endows the overall composition with a plain geometrical framework, which is in turn mediated by the artist’s gaunt presence and the antique or Old Master image of a girl or young woman shown stuck on the back of the canvas.
Jack Millar was born in London. David Buckman has written: ‘His father was Ernest Woodroffe de Cauze Millar, a scenic artist who, prior to his death, worked at the Royal Opera House, Convent Garden.’ Millar studied at Clapham School of Art and at St. Martin’s before serving in the Second World War in India and South Africa. Buckman recorded that ‘it was characteristic of Millar’s easy-going approach to life that one Christmas he had to forfeit his sergeant’s stripes when gunners in his charge were found drunk on duty’.
Invalided out of the Army, he studied at the Royal College of Art from 1947-50, where his tutors included Rodrigo Moynihan, John Minton, Ruskin Spear, Carel Weight and Robert Buhler.
‘After a failed first marriage, Millar in 1969 married the painter Pamela Izzard. Weight’s present to the happy couple was his own drolly titled [painting] The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden.’ (Quote from David Buckman).
A 1997 painting by Millar, Dried Flowers and the Tree of Life, is a complex, allusive picture, depicting a mixture of dried flowers and grasses set against a curtained backdrop, itself a paradisiacal composition of indigo branches, leaves, flowers and tiny, brilliant birds. There is an intriguing interplay between darks and lights, nature morte (literally so here) and art, and also between decorative profusion and simple natural forms and motifs.