Peter Freeth’s unsigned, undated self-portrait was painted during the period (1956-60) when he was a student at the Slade School of Fine Art, London. Born in Birmingham in 1938, nephew of the etcher and painter Andrew Freeth, Peter was eighteen-years old when he went to the Slade.
Freeth has portrayed himself as the epitome of stiff-necked, youthful insouciance, though it is evident that this is a thin ‘veneer’ (the artist’s word) for a sensitive, uncertain young man, which only serves to heighten the picture’s poignancy. The down-turned, slightly agape mouth, pallid bluish-pinkish features, arched eyebrows and black, abysmal eyes create a kind of enfant terrible mask – self-consciously determined to give nothing away. In fact, vulnerability is easily transparent behind the mask.
The ochreish, burnished highlights to the hair, and the glowing yellow collar do nothing to lighten the tone: there is a coldness to their refulgence. The abstracted background, with its black upper ‘void’ (as the artist describes it) and icy blue undertow, is reminiscent of much contemporary abstract painting.
On seeing a photograph of this picture more than forty years after it was painted, Freeth wrote:
‘Excuse my delay in answering: I have only now recovered from the shock!… I really had no recollection of the painting… How this portrait brings back (almost) lost thoughts and sensations! I can’t say I like it: I certainly don’t admire it. What it does is make me remember all the uncertainty of being a young art student, the anguish and self doubt under the wafer thin veneer of arrogance and high seriousness… That black void! Is that a washing line I see behind me? Take out the head completely… and the resulting picture would have quite a lot in common with many of my later aquatints.’
Freeth has described his childhood in Birmingham – ‘a city under sporadic siege, with mournful sirens, and later, flags and street parties – as still the most important factor in my make-up’. After returning from a three-year Rome Scholarship in 1963 – where ‘my Euston Road mode pretty well evaporated under the Roman sun’ – he began teaching part-time in various London art schools. Eschewing colour, since the early 1970s he has concentrated on producing subtly nuanced aquatints, thrillingly unpredictable in their variations of light and dark.