Nathaniel Davies wrote to Ruth in 1959 that his self-portrait ‘was done when I was 24, twelve years ago. I was actually in the army at the time.’ In this picture, the head is at once delicately and robustly modelled. The huge hazel eyes looking obliquely away are drawn with childlike forthrightness (his right eye appearing as if it has become virtually semi-detached from the face). Features are exaggerated and distorted: the generous lips, the large sweep of forehead and the thick, black, glossy hair, the angular chin (itself bounded by the most assured single brushstroke right up to the cheekbone). It is the mesmerising eyes above all which communicate a sense of mystery.
Davies was, by all reports, a good-looking man but the picture seems devoid of vanity. The strong, gentle face has something fierce, even desperate in its expression. The background is quite abstract, but appears to show bluish-grey water below a leaden sky (maybe with reflections of trees, gone somehow crimson, in the water to the right). The face appears dramatically illuminated as though by sun suddenly piercing a gap in the clouds. Perhaps something of the suffering of the war years – serving in the Royal Corps of Signals, with a long spell in North Africa – when he witnessed some terrible events, rarely alluded to in later years – is in some way contained in his look.
The vivid red shirt collar and just visible blue tie-knot, along with the abundant head of hair, suggest a man who enjoyed his appearance, even in the austere, short-back-and-sides 1940s. Nathaniel’s son, the photographer Marcus Davies, has since testified that his father enjoyed wearing bright, often bohemian-looking clothes.
Davies was born in Dowlais in South Wales, where his father, a stonemason, worked through necessity in a big steelworks. In 1934, the family moved to Cardiff. At Cardiff College of Art, where he studied before and after his war service, he was taught and befriended by the painter Ceri Richards.
In 1947 he took up a teaching appointment at South Devon College of Art, remaining a full-time teacher until he retired in 1984. His figurative work became increasingly abstracted as time went on. In the 1970s, he made many spare, imposing purely abstract paintings. Davies’ self-portraits as a young man form a small but masterly body of work – with influences ranging from Post-Impressionism to Picasso.