Ruth Borchard recorded that she wrote to Leslie Marr in May 1964 but, for some reason, didn’t acquire a self-portrait by him. However, when, in 2001, Leslie Marr had a retrospective exhibition in London, the opportunity arose to add a self-portrait by the artist to the Borchard Collection.
This picture was painted in 1946 when Marr, who was born in 1922 in Durham City, was around twenty-four years old. It was painted in his Hampstead bedsit, where he was living after being demobbed from the R.A.F. He was then studying art at Heatherley’s School in Pimlico but finding ‘the very academic teaching [there] to be unhelpful.’ By now he was aware of David Bomberg’s work, having attended the first Borough Group show of work by Bomberg and his followers. Marr has said that Bomberg was pleased with this self-portrait, remarking, ‘It looks as if it has been carved out of granite.’ He soon attended Bomberg’s classes at Borough Polytechnic, which he found inspiring and liberating.
In portraying the strong lean face with its high cheek-bones, in his use of monumental black and blue-black binding lines, and in his dark yet vibrantly tinged palette, Marr spurned cautious English academicism. Unsmiling, sullen even, this is a face marked indeed by granite composure, bedrock determination, but also by graceful brightness of spirit. The latter is evoked partly through the use of flaming strokes tingeing his sensuous lips, his ear, his forehead – all in contrast to the unyielding blackness of his hair and dark outlines throughout.
From September 1942 until 1946 Marr had served as an R.A.F. Radar Officer in Britain and the Middle East. He has described making an earlier self-portrait ‘on a remote radar station in… Palestine’, under extremely makeshift conditions; it was ‘painted with some difficulty as the only mirror available was a small shaving mirror’. This first self-portrait (1944), sensitively though quite academically painted, shows a thin, attractive young man eyeing himself up with refined circumspection.
Over several decades, Marr has embarked on landscape-painting trips in Britain, Spain, France, Greece and New Zealand, often in challenging weather conditions. In the resulting landscapes, seascapes and flower still-lifes, the disciplined abandon and release of Marr’s brushwork is very much in evidence.