John Wynne-Morgan was born in Harrogate, Yorkshire and enrolled at the Heatherley School of Fine Art in London in 1945. His self-portrait was probably painted around 1960, when the artist would have been in his mid-fifties. This picture shows a sensitive yet steely-looking middle-aged man in a white shirt, with black spectacles, his balding, greying head and shoulders set against a sombre background. This is a no-nonsense self-portrayal, which nevertheless delights in the play of opalescent light on grey hair, ageing skin and plain white shirt.
In a 1962 London catalogue foreword, Wynne-Morgan is described as ‘primarily a portrait painter’ (though the show contained scenes of Paris, Ibiza, Venice and London, and he also painted many Bonnard-ish nudes). His studio was in Hampstead and he was the author of three books for aspiring artists. In Oil Painting as a Pastime: A Complete Course for Beginners (Souvenir Press, London, 1959), he evokes how hard it is to embark on a portrait:
‘I do not draw the outline of the face and then insert the features. I make a dot for the eye nearest to the centre, using this dot as my starting point. I draw rather like a child starting to walk. I work from feature to feature, not letting go of one until I have got hold of the other.’
‘With the eyes and mouth roughed in, take a darker tone and start searching for the forms of the face. These darks I find underneath the eyebrows, at the bridge of the nose, in certain parts of the forehead… There is usually a dark shadow under the lower lip.’
Having painted in ‘the lighter tones… in touches… I am ready to paint the mouth… [which] plays the most important part in giving expression to the face.’ He says that the eyes should be painted ‘as simply as possible… in many cases it is possible to paint the eye using only one colour, not even showing the pupil or the highlights’.
‘The last lap’ he described as follows:
‘Don’t fall into the trap of painting a white shirt white, it never is. Use a warm grey, and on this you put the odd highlight of pure white. Last but not least, finish the background, being very careful to understate… as the background must be subservient to the figure.’