Born Robert Sinclair Thomson in Glasgow in 1915, as an artist he called himself Sinclair Thomson (Sinclair being his mother’s maiden name); those close to him knew him as Robert. It is more than likely that his self-portrait was painted specially for Ruth in 1964.
This is a subtle yet exuberant picture, infused with joie de vivre and gentle, slightly mischievous humour. Its chromatic brilliance combined with probing intensity may call to mind self-portraits by van Gogh and Gauguin. The hat he is wearing is an extraordinary, almost architectonic, creation. Beneath its dazzling rounded top, spreading tones of pink, mauve, green and blue suggest the shadows it casts. His second wife, Barbara Sinclair Thomson, who met him around this time, recalls that he loved to wear straw hats, sometimes even hers.
His one visible eye – painted mostly green, partly squiggly blue-black (his eyes were in fact blue) – gives an astute, benign, humorous look. His features are, on close analysis, a fiery mix of orange, red and yellow, with some green. But at a proper distance they do harmoniously cohere – the strong nose, the sensuous lips, the bearded chin all coming distinctly into focus.
An earlier self-portrait, painted during the Second World War when Thomson was an art student, is much darker in tone though still quite freely painted – a portrait of the artist as a serious young man with short, dark, cropped hair.
At school, aged sixteen, Sinclair Thomson had endured a severe rugby accident, which led to the amputation of his leg. For the rest of his life he was to suffer recurrent pain and inconvenience. In 1941 he went to Glasgow School of Art. Fellow students there included Joan Eardley (1921-1963); they became close friends.
From 1960 until 1975 he was a teacher at Glasgow School of Art. His summers were spent at his cottage at Ballantrae, where, as Dr. Mary Armour has written, ‘he looked out over the Firth of Clyde towards Ailsa Crag which he painted many times and enjoyed painting large sunsets towards Arran’. Two great modern Scottish painters, William Gilles and John Maxwell became good friends; he shared their love of Scottish landscape. There are parallels between his landscape painting and theirs, and some also with Joan Eardley’s expressionistic landscapes and seascapes.