Robert Lutyens wrote five letters to Ruth Borchard in late 1965 and early 1966, from his home in London W1. In the first, he wrote:
‘I am afraid the only self-portrait is one which I want to leave to my small daughter. I enclose a photograph… I wouldn’t mind doing one for you in brush-drawing in oil or canvas… in monochrome. It is my favourite medium.’
In his second letter, he wrote:
‘I think the thing to do would be to let you have the painting of which I sent a photograph (since you say you like it) without any more fuss.’
As a footnote, he added:
‘The critic, John Russell, was very flattering about this self-portrait… I don’t know what it is really worth in money. My fee for a commissioned portrait is £500.’
Ruth paid £21.
Born in 1901, Lutyens was around sixty-two when he painted this picture. He appears to have portrayed himself in the artistic, bohemian garb of the early-to-mid-eighteenth century poet, scholar, architect, gentleman connoisseur or collector – flowing white cravat, Oriental-style hat, informal jacket, nearly rimless glasses. With his large forehead (accentuated by the dark fez-like hat above), somewhat beady eyes peering from above sketchily-drawn eyeglasses, and rather wizened folds of flesh and delicately drawn wrinkles, he comes across as an ascetic-featured sage, worn down perhaps by his years of learning and his wry sensitivity (an impression heightened by the use of a pale, autumnal-wintry, near-monochrome palette). The area of blurry, white ‘cloud’ on the left of the canvas (actually where the bare canvas shows through) is an especially evocative one – possibly suggesting feelings of sublime emptiness, even intimations of death.
As son of the great architect Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944), Robert was perhaps inevitably shadowed (and overshadowed) all his life by his father’s presence and influence. Robert’s portraits in charcoal and oil were often acutely perceptive to subtle nuances of character, as in his portrayal of his father (National Portrait Gallery Collection) smiling jovially at a banquet, his features flushed pink-and-mauve; and in his hauntingly lovely mid-60s oil portrait of Lee Radziwill, sister of Jackie Onassis. In the latter painting’s sparing, attenuated palette, the influence of his father’s close friend, the painter William Nicholson, is plain to see.