Born in Aberdeen in 1933, Edwards was around thirty-years old when he painted this self-portrait. He had studied at Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen. In 1956, Joe and his wife Betty, who had also studied at Gray’s, went to live at Home Farm, Kingswells, near Aberdeen. In 1959, they moved to a nearby cottage at Fairley, Kingswells. In the self-portrait, we probably see the front stone wall of this cottage or bothy. Behind the artist’s right shoulder, we see the bothy interior containing an archetypal family group, mother and father and child, conjured up in loose expressionistic brushstrokes. Though each featureless figure is distinctive, they also meld into a sensuous whole.
He depicts himself here as a nervously alert, still young-looking young man. His pinched, good-looking face and wiry neck strain towards us (and towards his own mirrored reflection). His expression is deadpan to the point of pained solemnity, the bodily pose awkwardly held – the shoulders rather stiff, each hand self-consciously holding a brush. And yet his strained air co-exists with evident self-awareness; the artist dissects ambiguities and complexities of his character with painstaking precision.
He has painted his face and neck – the skin lies tautly over flesh and bone – and his hands (whose knobbly fingers so tensely hold the brushes) with sensitivity to subtleties of light and shade. Rather than hinting at some deep source of inner illumination or inspiration, the glint in his eyes seems to be no more than a literal physical reflection of the light source. Yet the expansive greenish-blue or turquoise of his painter’s smock or jersey does seem, unconsciously perhaps, to allude to the universal or ‘oceanic’ qualities of being an artist, who is after all a kind of inner navigator.
In the late 1960s, he painted a series of mural paintings which evoke immemorial yet now fast-changing cycles of rural life around Kingswells. A few years later, in paintings of toiling local farmers, Edwards dynamically semi-abstracted and choreographed the essential rhythms of their work.