There are two letters from Michael Noakes to Ruth Borchard, dated ’29 Jan 59’ and ‘5 May 1960’, from Reigate, Surrey, when both were living there and had become good friends. In the first, Noakes responded to Ruth’s request for artists she could approach. ‘All this thinking about portraits set me to doing a couple myself – of me with beard! I doubt if you would like either, but I must show you sometime. (I’m now without beard, you’ll be glad to hear).’ Later Ruth acquired a self-portrait painted in 1958, when Noakes was twenty-five.
Born in Brighton in 1933, Noakes graduated from Reigate School of Art in 1954, and then spent two years doing National Service, mainly as an Army Officer in Germany, before attending the Royal Academy Schools from 1965-60.
In 2001, Noakes recalled that as an R.A. Schools student, ‘I was experimenting as a young artist, playing around with different self-portraits at the time.’ He also remarked that painting oneself – the most ‘convenient model’ of all – was ‘no problem, it takes the pressure off. Yet all the questions about how to find the form, to achieve likeness, colour and tone, remain.’ He says that his self-portrait was ‘painted fairly low, drained of colour, greenish’, noting that, by contrast, ‘you can’t paint a sitter with a greenish face’.
The picture shows the artist with a long, gaunt face and large, penetrating eyes. His emphatically pallid, green-hued skin, thick red beard and moustache, fiercely illumined hair and those disquieting, shadowed eyes combine to give him a quite wary, haunted look, not unlike D.H. Lawrence’s. ‘At art school,’ he says, ‘we were taught anatomy, and so I caught the last of the traditional training there.’
Noakes is now renowned as a portraitist of public figures. To contemplate the picture-crowded walls of his London studio today is to be confronted with a glittering, eclectic cast from modern British public life. These include, in no special order: Gilbert Harding (the BBC panel-game chairman) sensitively portrayed as brilliant, prickly, vulnerable; the Queen standing self-assured in a turquoise, fur-trimmed outfit; the comic actor Robert Morley, double-chinned, regarding us with inimitable perspicacity; Cardinal Basil Hume, a pale, white-haired figure in scarlet robes, whose regard seems ineffably sweet; a deadpan, enigmatic-looking Sir Alec Guinness seated on a simple kitchen chair, his hands precisely clasped; a life-size Margaret Thatcher depicted on the steps of 10 Downing Street, her uncompromising presence dispassionately rendered.