What is immediately striking about Lee Fether’s 2013 self-portrait is how subtly undemonstrative it is. It is as far removed from a grand rhetorical statement about self as is possible to be. As such, it has a quiet insistent strength, an elusive, even enigmatic quality, that is curiously compelling.
Fether says, ‘It was painted in a relatively short time. I roughed out the form, position of the head and features. Then painted from life, concentrating on the light, and darks, and colours, the shapes I saw. Without analysing any emotions, just intensely looking without making any judgement. Too many preconceived notions about how I think I look/want to look/should look would get in the way of the painting process.’
In a meditative pose of still, unsmiling composure, the artist seems to look partially at the viewer but at the same time her gaze is abstracted leftwards. Her horn-rimmed glasses seem prominently to frame and accentuate the ambiguously directed nature of her glance. She has long appreciated looking at self-portraits, notably Rembrandt’s, as a way ‘to track and understand an artist’s progress’, and says ‘there is a sense of freedom when painting a self-portrait – no one else to consider and I don’t care how I come across. There is a freedom to be bolder, to know when it is finished. But it is also hard when looking at your reflected image, there is a need to stop making judgements or assumptions, and a need to be in a disconnected state of mind.’
Each and every detail – greenish eyes, high cheekbones, strong eyebrows, wisps of hair falling casually around her right ear, lines to the side of the mouth – is seen with unadorned clarity. The simplicity of her attire – a brown sweater or tee-shirt, an open necked, big-collared blouse or shirt – adds to an overall gently austere tenor. The palette itself is muted – browns, greens, pinks dexterously modulated in the figure against a backdrop wash of a light teal colour. The latter, along with lucid accents falling on the figure (especially the forehead), helps imbue the piece with an airy grace.
She says ‘I still refer to a book given to me when I was a child – I must have expressed some interest after a visit to the National Gallery – of plates of paintings by Degas. I still find his work the most inspirational of all. Composition is considered in a masterly way. There is just enough detail, no more than is needed, to suggest what he wants.’
An earlier radically exploratory self-portrait was included in the 2011 Ruth Borchard Self-Portrait competition and exhibition. Head and bare shoulders are set against a background fluctuating, left to right, from a very light blue to midnight blue – as though an exhilarating high wind has both shifted and sifted the elements, partly occluding, even obliterating the artist’s features so that her eyes are no longer visible. The effect is invigoratingly disorientating.
Lee Fether was born in north London in 1965. She studied Industrial Design at the Central School of of Art and Design, London, from 1983-87, and then worked as a product designer in London and Tokyo. After starting a family, she returned to life drawing and painting, taking classes at Greenwich Community College.
Her 2009 portrait of the actress and television star Gail Porter – and a 2015 portrait of the actress Dame Eileen Atkins – are each notable for their tellingly attenuated colour schemes and psychological acuity. Her 2011 portrait of the poet and children’s author Michael Rosen – depicted in the workshop of the Little Angel Theatre in Islington, where Rosen is a patron – is vividly naturalistic with an aptly surreal story-telling edge: a bulbous-eyed crocodile puppet is shown stretched over the subject’s shoulder, its huge regular white teeth glaring comically at us. This multi-layered, poignantly perspicacious painting is now in the collection of The National Portrait Gallery.