Rowland Suddaby’s 1963 watercolour and gouache self-portrait, painted when he was around fifty-one years old, seems to depict a conventional, beefy-looking Englishman of his time. There is nothing cursory here, either about his full black moustache, nor his thick, slick-backed black hair (with a hint of grey at the temples). His chunky brown sweater adds to the robust impression. The delicate, semi-abstracted background wash of greens and browns – suggesting the forms of a tree trunk and shimmering vegetation – accords with his lifelong love of landscape painting.
His expression is quite stern and resolute, accentuated by the use of black line throughout, and by the use of wash to depict the generous eyebrows, moustache and full head of hair. His bluish-grey eyes may give little away. The dark shadows around them suggest something faintly disquieting yet the man’s evident true grit is not fake.
Born in Kimberworth in Yorkshire, Suddaby was just fourteen when he won a scholarship to study at Sheffield College of Art in 1926. After graduating, he followed his father to work as a steelworker, but devoted his weekends to painting landscapes in the Derbyshire Peak District.
In 1937 he described how, with the proceeds of a sale of a painting ‘when I was 19,… I was so elated that I got married and went to London with the proceeds. That was in 1931… I had good reason to repent of my folly… I could not sell my pictures… I was on the verge of starvation the whole time.’
‘Just as I was at my last gasp I got a job in Wardour Street [in London’s Soho] at two pounds a week [doing] cartoon work… I sold my entire studio to a dealer for £10. There were at least fifty pictures. Sometime later Mr. Rex Nan Kivell, the director of the Redfern [a leading London gallery] saw them in a window and paid a hundred pounds for a quarter of them.’
Suddaby had his first one-man show at the Wertheim Gallery in London in 1935. Lucy Wertheim was very much alive to modern art with roots in a genuinely naïve or childlike impulse, and it was natural she should be drawn to Suddaby’s work. The following year he had a one-man show at the Redfern Gallery. Suddaby’s love of landscape was made even keener by contrast with the foundries and smoking chimneys he had escaped in Sheffield. And yet the latter certainly influenced the vivid, dramatic way in which he portrayed the former.