Ken Howard’s Self-Portrait at Cricklewood is dated verso 1961, when the artist was around thirty-years old. It shows him in his north London studio in front of his canvas, a brush resting in his lowered right hand, his unseen left hand maybe raised in the act of painting. A black-edged canvas is set on the wooden easel. Though informal in his open-necked white shirt and dark sweater, the artist seems quite meditatively upright in posture and strongly self-absorbed. Daylight streaming from a window to his left hews out strong facial features right down to his firm, straight neck. His eyes seem impenetrably dark, the whites barely visible. The sensual mouth is inexpressively still. This is a face that, in both its sunny and shadowed aspects, gives little away.
Above the figure, ‘crowned’ by the curving wooden mantelpiece behind, hangs some shadowy portrait (maybe a poster), and other indiscernible pictures, postcards of paintings perhaps, tacked onto the wall. The mantelpiece portrait seems to proclaim the centrality of the human figure both in his studio and in his art. The muted palette of grey-yellow walls and black-brown sweater contrasts subtly with the geometric yellow bands on the wall and the ruddy fireplace tones.
An earlier oil self-portrait (1954), set in a Plymouth barrack-room, gives a close view of a ruggedly contoured head and upper torso. His muscular uprightness and steely look tell us this is a resolutely questing young man, then just twenty-two.
Born in 1932 in north London, during the war Howard sketched in the air-raid shelter beneath the factory where his father worked. From 1939-53, he studied at Hornsey School of Art. In 1953, he spent six weeks travelling in Spain, immersing himself in Velázquez’s works and Goya’s black paintings. From 1955-8, he attended the Royal College of Art.
His subtle yet spectacular triptych Ulster Crucifixion (1978) was awarded a prize in the annual John Moores exhibition in Liverpool. He has produced many diaphanous watercolours of Venice and of Cornish beaches. From the early 1980s onwards, his subject became increasingly the interiors of his two impressive studios in Cornwall and London. Howard says, ‘in the studio I love painting the model with the light coming through her hair or just catching down the body’