Writing to Ruth Borchard in the mid-1960s, Robin Guthrie dated his self-portrait, in pencil and watercolour, c.1947, when he was about forty-five. He actually looks younger here, perhaps in his twenties or early thirties. So this is either a somewhat flattering self-portrait; or he was very well-preserved in middle age – or indeed that this was a somewhat earlier picture than he reckoned.
He comes across as a slender, boyish man who is only too well aware of his attractiveness. The long, bare neck, exposed throat and upper chest, sculpted lips, hint of a moustache, alluring eyes, hair flopping with studied casualness down his left temple from below his elegantly slanted straw boater – all these details are conjured up with panache, a fluent use of line and chiaroscuro.
Guthrie’s cool, summery soigné regard, accentuated by the spare wash of green acting on and around his head, is curiously self-distancing. The light falling on his forehead and right cheek is conjured up by leaving a pristine expanse of paper and endows the subject with a rarefied air.
Robin Guthrie was born in Hartling, Sussex. His father was the artist, poet and printer James Guthrie (1874-1952) who was a leading member of the Glasgow School and a distinguished portraitist. As Robin’s grandson Jonathan Guthrie wrote in 2000: ‘He had been a brilliant pupil of whom much was expected… Throughout his life, Robin clung to the comfort of the impressionistic style fostered in him at the Slade.’
There is an earlier self-portrait, c.1936, purchased by the National Portrait Gallery in 1999: a magnificent pencil and pen-and-ink drawing of the artist posing with a rifle over his shoulder. His face here is shadowed by self-doubt, perhaps even anguish. Jonathan Guthrie has written:
‘What… society hostesses, art world hangers on and shop-girls saw in Robin is apparent n [this] self-portrait. He had soulful eyes, a floppy fringe and a sensuous mouth topped by one of those cursory moustaches regarded as dashing between the wars. But there is something ambivalent about Robin’s gaze. … Robin died in 1971 at the age of 68, with a Bentley in the garage and a girlfriend many years younger than himself. There are worse ways to go, but my impression is that he was never really happy. The germ of this private malady is apparent in the self-portrait in the NPG. It is this, rather than the self-assurance [in his drawings] of the public men surrounding him, that is most compelling.’