Born in 1922 in Durham City, Leslie Marr came to life as a painter by a rather circuitous route, at first taking an engineering degree at Cambridge University (in the expectation he would join the family shipbuilding business). Then in 1944 finding himself on a remote radar station as an R.A.F. Officer in what was then Palestine, he took up oil painting as a way of passing time. Using rudimentary materials, his first painting ‘was an exciting experience’, a local landscape. ‘This was followed by a self-portrait, painted with more difficulty as the only mirror available was a small shaving mirror.’
This first self-portrait (1944) is sensitively though quite academically painted with a subdued palette. It shows a thin, attractive young man eyeing himself up with refined circumspection. After painting this picture, a fellow officer lent him books from The Penguin Modern Painters series on Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland, John Piper and Henry Moore, which were a revelation to him.
In late 1945, he enrolled at evening art classes at Heatherley’s School in Pimlico, and a few months later, began studying there full-time. One evening he encountered a young artist, Dinora Mendelson entering a Soho pub ‘carrying a large portfolio’ which he timidly asked to see; ‘I was astonished to see such big, bold drawings, quite unlike the polite period sketches which we did at Heatherley’s.’ Dinora told him ‘that the life class which she attended was taken by David Bomberg, who was her stepfather’. She took him to her flat where he ‘immediately felt a strong affinity’ with several Bomberg paintings there. ‘Soon afterwards Dinora took me to meet Bomberg… and very shyly asked if he would accept me as a pupil. He said he would.’
He began attending Bomberg’s evening drawing classes at the Borough Polytechnic. ‘There were perhaps fifteen or twenty in the classes, including members of what soon became the Borough Group, including myself and Dennis Creffield, Cliff Holden and Dorothy Mead [all artists whose self-portraits Ruth Borchard went on to collect]. The atmosphere was very intense and competitive, quite like an old religious order where monks work to achieve a particular understanding. It was fairly quiet and low-key though there was an electricity there. Usually Bomberg would come around, giving opinions. He taught it wasn’t necessary to go through the academic mills to become a painter.’ In a 1965 catalogue essay, Marr wrote: ‘Bomberg was unique as a teacher …the merging of painter and subject was the essence of [his] teaching.’
Marr’s 1946 self-portrait, painted when the artist was twenty-four years old (and added to the Ruth Borchard Collection in 2001) portrays his lean, high-cheekboned face with monumental black and blue-black binding lines and a dark yet vibrantly-tinged palette. Marr has said that Bomberg was pleased with this self-portrait; his comment being, ‘It looks as if it has been carved out of granite.’
Marr says that his earlier self-portraits ‘were mostly destroyed. For years, I used to wrestle with them, and end up often painting them out. But in the last ten years or so, for some reason it’s not been so difficult. They work in a way I can see fairly quickly: ‘that’s the gist of, that is a likeness, that is me’, whereas before I used to frequently spoil them by trying to get in more detail.’
In his 2009 self-portrait, Marr’s head and upper body are depicted ‘on a summer day in my [Norfolk] studio, where I either stand or sit in front of the mirror. I was probably feeling a bit old; it’s a great nuisance being arthritic and having pains in one shoulder and that sort of thing. I was feeling rather like that and a bit grumpy.’
His pose here is not dissimilar to that in his 1946 self-portrait (though seen at a greater distance), though he appears frailer here, with the more elongated type-form of a Giacometti portrait. But whereas the 1946 self-portrait is sturdily self-assured in terms of its binding lines (containing luminous colours, like stained glass), the framework and detailing of the 2009 self-portrait appear understandably more tremulous and uncertain: wiry, meandering black lines defining nose, eyebrows, chin and jaw, folds and collar of the bright blue shirt, and a palpitating admixture of flesh tones. The agile gaze here appears somewhat vulnerable, full of curiosity. The thick head of icy white hair is a brilliant painterly statement, conveying something perhaps of the primordial purity of awareness that may come with age. The elegantly informal, open-necked blue shirt (against a broodingly dark oceanic backdrop) is that of a perpetual mariner of the inner life, eternally youthful in spirit.
Marr says he is intrigued by the art of Chaim Soutine (whom Bomberg once referred to as ‘our brother Soutine’), ‘the vigorousness and wildness and freedom to do what he likes. I don’t see his portraits as extreme distortions – they are super-likenesses. It’s interesting to put his paintings (if unconsciously) side by side with Cézanne’s – everything Cézanne puts into his paintings is absolutely right; there is nothing superfluous, nothing left out; a great process of selection has taken place.’
As someone who has ‘always sought out wild places’, Marr has embarked on painting expeditions over the years in remote areas in Scotland, Wales, Devon, France, Greece and New Zealand. The result has been dynamically harmonious landscapes of surging vibrancy, ecstatically transcending conditioned barriers between seer and what is seen. In the 1950s, he says, painting in northwest Scotland on a cold bright autumn day, sitting with his easel in front of a mountainscape, ‘I had this extraordinary experience that time and space stood still – there were no distances. And I stopped thinking as well, this blooming stuff that goes on all the time in your head, that stopped. I sat there for about twenty minutes, and then got on with the painting; it was quite successful.’