Born in London in 1951, the son of parents encouragingly supportive of his artistic leanings, Thomas Newbolt studied painting at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts from 1970-74. The following year was spent in Florence on an Italian Government painting scholarship. An erudite, articulate figure, Newbolt has been enriched by his wide-ranging reading of literature, a love of music of many kinds as well as an informed yet fruitfully intuitive absorption in the history of art. He has said, ‘Once you know that Titian and Goya exist, once you’ve seen what they’ve done, you have to do something about it.’
At art school, he had the good fortune to be taught by two brilliant though very different painters: Euan Uglow (1932-2000) and Sargy Mann (1937-2015), ‘who both taught me to understand the nature of painting as a visionary rather than voyeuristic process. Though Uglow was measuring his paintings up to the end [co-ordinating compositions with something of the rigour of his teacher William Coldstream], he was an artist who, painting from life and memory, used imagination to make his paintings work.’ Newbolt found Uglow’s artistic guidance immensely rewarding.
‘Sargy Mann was fantastically helpful too, and we had wonderful conversations over the years.’ Mann began to lose his eyesight in 1973; undeterred by this, painting in increasing darkness, he orientated himself away from landscapes towards the figure. Mann’s example (as expressed in this 2008 written statement by him) meant a good deal to Newbolt: ‘As long as one has the ability to organise materials and is able to discover new experiences, art can be made. I have always believed that artists are people who can act with precision in a state of extreme insecurity.’
Newbolt’s 2013 self-portrait was completed in relative darkness in his large weather-boarded barn studio in the Cambridgeshire Fens. The liminal light of dusk – dissolving and transfiguring distinct quotidian shapes into magically, sometimes menacingly ambiguous new forms – pervades several recent self-portraits.
A darkness that scintillates similarly suffuses his 2015 series of portraits of an imaginary tall, slender, dark abyss-eyed young woman of simultaneous strength and fragility – variously seen as tranquil or full of trepidation or ardour. An alluring individualistic presence sometimes standing against a black background or seated on elegant, uncomfortable sofas – the latter with tall, thin legs as spindly as the high heels she wears – she is far removed from being illustrational. Rather, she comes across as a vividly, even hallucinatory sentient presence, at once a timeless, universal female figure and defiantly contemporary too.
Newbolt finds himself memorising whereabouts of tubes of paint (set out methodically on a table) before applying undiluted pigments of intensely saturated colour directly to the canvas. ‘I move like a machine at dusk, coming over to the picture with a brush and putting the paint down where I think the nose is, because I can’t really see. One of these faces [of the imaginary young woman] was painted after the light had gone completely, from memory really. Funnily, the colours are quite bright.’*
This preferred procedure of painting in twilight has an affinity with what mystics call the via negativa – the desperately hard-won way of ascertaining the truth of things by facing what they are not. He says, ‘Each mark changes who the painting looks like: in a self-portrait, the reflection does not show me as I appear to others; in a portrait of an imaginary person a final likeness is meaningless. The face usually arrives during a battle with the face part of the painting that, at first, is left as provisional and, finally, turns out to be definitive.’
In the 2013 self-portrait, interior luminosity is conveyed through glowing ochre brushwork and palette-knife impasto describing gaunt cheeks, forehead, nose and part of the chin. The black, square-shaped pool that is one eye (‘paintings don’t work for me if the eyes are small, they have to be like caverns’*), and calligraphic green-black strokes evoking the other, are expressionistic marks accumulating until the face ‘turns out to be definitive’.
Of his heads, he says: ‘The face must contain the possibility of happiness and unhappiness, thought and not-thought. I always find if I have a smile it doesn’t seem convincing. Why should she be smiling? It’s the same with a frown. Of course, the pictures have a sad tinge to them sometimes, or sometimes a happy one.’* The close-up head here has a melancholy dignity, plaintively direct.
Through the subtly flamboyant chiaroscuro of his sculpted features, we see both ‘the skull beneath the skin’ (in T.S. Eliot’s phrase) as well as a vulnerable human ‘persona’. The powerful black of the obscured/abstracted garment he wears echoes that of one of his eyes and the contours delineating his features and his splendidly venerable-looking purplish hat; the latter puts the painting into an illustrious tradition of archetypal artists’ self-portrayals in a diverse array of hats and caps – both formal and informal, some jaunty, others magisterial.
In a 2014 self-portrait of the artist in spectral greyish black (with electrifying green/yellow accents at intervals over his person), he appears rounder in face, more rueful in expression; he wears a distinguished (if still rather inchoate) hat here too. This later figure and head appear both palpably present and elusive, merging into the matière of a backdrop of coalescing grey, green and black pigment. This observation from The Journal of Eugène Delacroix (whose writings Newbolt has admired hugely since he was a student) seems apt to quote here: ‘The painter… has that first passionate seeing of his subject. But that trial of himself is more formless than that of the actor. The more talent he has, the more beauties the calmness of study will add.’ (January 27th 1847)
Thomas Newbolt won the Ruth Borchard Self-Portrait Prize in 2013. His paintings are in the Collections of Linklaters LLP; the Bank of England; and Trinity College, New Hall and Churchill College, University of Cambridge. Since 2000 he has taught at the The Royal Drawing School, London.
* – these quotations from Thomas Newbolt are taken from Martin Gayford’s writings on the artist.