Samuel Dodwell’s self-portrait is signed but undated. The artist’s son Andrew Dodwell has said that Samuel was enthusiastic about current paintings, but often dismissed his past works. He believes his father painted this picture soon after Ruth’s request in August 1962 (they were near neighbours in Reigate). It is likely to date from mid-to-late 1962, when he was fifty-three years old.
The self-portrayal is slightly angled so that the viewer feels he or she is looking up at the artist, whose stance is quite imposing, intimidating even. A serious, portly, detached figure, he peers into the distance. His casual clothes are of a kind he wore in the evening, and at weekends, for long studio hours at home (after dressing formally on weekdays as a prominent City banker). The left side of his face is heavily shadowed, the right softly illumined – seeming to conjure up the overt darks and lights of his character. His son recalls him as being ‘a demanding, spontaneous person, quite truculent at times, an uncompromising character, combative, with a very youthful, agile mind’, who also had radical left wing views and an innate sense of justice and fairness.
The mainly warm, light palette is characteristic; Andrew recalls that, in his father’s studio, burnt umber and raw sienna were always prominent. There are some lovely flourishes: a single, broad muted blue brushstroke evoking his shirt collar, and fresh squiggles of yellow and brown conjuring up the rumpled golden sweater.
During the 1930s, Dodwell studied painting part-time at London’s Regent Street Polytechnic. During the war, he was a squadron leader in R.A.F. Bomber Command. After the Normandy landings, he witnessed terrible civilian suffering and devastation on the continent. His post-war banking career was extremely stressful; he also became overweight. After three major heart attacks, aged fifty-nine, his life was saved by pioneering open-heart surgery. From then on, he painted seven days a week. He was, his son says, ‘a driven talent’.
Some of his best paintings, depicting ‘ordinary’ people at work and play, were done in the 1950s and early 60s. Three Runners on the London-Brighton Road shows three male figures striding forwards, their exertion dynamically conveyed through a muscular use of abstracted, simplified form against an iridescent, almost cubist background.