In 1961, Roger Hallett wrote to Ruth Borchard, ‘I have no such paintings [self-portraits] in my possession now, but there are six very early self-portraits in the collection of Brixton Prison where I was for six weeks in 1953 (for conscientious objection)’. Ruth went on to acquire a self-portrait painted by Hallett in 1962 or early 1963, when the artist was around thirty-three and living in Wells, Somerset. Born in Britsol, Roger Hallett studied at the Slade School of Art in London from 1954-57, where his teachers included William Coldstream, Lucian Freud and Tom Monnington. From 1957-60, he lived and worked in Australia, working as a television scenic designer in Sydney and as a theatre set designer in Melbourne.
‘Figurative abstraction – or abstracted figuration?’ was the title of a 1965 ‘Arts Review’ article – a question highly relevant to Hallett’s radically reticent, coolly English self-portrait. Viewing himself no doubt through mirrors (rather than just through the mind’s eye or memory), he portrays himself seen from the back and in left profile. This is probably the ‘shyest’ self-portrait in Ruth Borchard’s collection – we do not even see the artist’s eyes, only his down-turned countenance (‘the pale cast of thought’) in semi-profile. And yet the subject’s silvery-coppery elusiveness, his wistful poise, is rather self-consciously elaborated.
Ruth Borchard would have seen two paintings by Hallett, illustrated in black-and-white in Jack Beddington’s 1957 book Young Artists of Promise. In The Exercise Yard, a surging mass of anxious human figures, mostly seen from the back, but with one or two in profile, appear like naively carved, ambulatory sculptures, set against a bleak backdrop. This picture was surely inspired by Hallett’s six week-long imprisonment in 1953 as a conscientious objector.
In 1983 Hallett embarked on a four-year adventure, creating a panorama of Bath, based on a 360 degree view of the Georgian city as seen from the basket of a hot-air balloon some fifty feet above Alexandra Park. This extensive work (70m long x 70m high) was exhibited for ten years at the Thames Barrier Visitor Centre in Woolwich. He has since painted sweeping panoramas of the townscapes of Salies de Béarn, in southwest France (where he has lived for many years), Lourdes and Bordeaux, as well as a striking panorama of the rugged contours of Gibraltar.