In 1972 William Thomas wrote to Ruth Borchard from Chelsea: ‘I have a small oil and a black and white lithograph…I recommend the litho as being the better of the two [self-portraits].’ He went on to suggest that Ruth visit him the following week, ‘say Monday late afternoon.’ At the top of the letter Ruth has added a brief note in pencil, ‘Top Bell 5.00’ – a nice record of their actual meeting.
Born in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, William Thomas was around forty-five years old when he made this late 1971 lithograph, numbered fifth out of an edition of ten. Its dark, velvety textures seem, at first sight, almost to overwhelm – indeed obliterate – the artist’s features, yet closer contemplation shows that pervasive chiaroscuro helps give the face subtle definition. This mix of coal black tones, especially above the cheekbones and sparer lucid ones on the sides of his face, may indicate that here is someone keenly aware of variations of psychic climate within himself.
This is a bold, uncompromising composition – with just a few diagrammatic lines in its otherwise featureless background. The thin, pursed, slightly down-turned lips, and the unflinching eyes, creviced in their sockets, with deep rings underneath, create an impression of sober, melancholic introspection, but this is inseparable from what also comes across as a ‘strong warm presence’ (in the words of a friend, Carole Angier, who also noted that he had ‘a very beautiful voice, deep and vibrant’).
Thomson studied at Ontario College of Art, Toronto from 1945-7. In 1947, he won a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy Schools in London, and then at the Royal College of Art, from where he graduated in 1952. His teachers included Robert Buhler, Rodrigo Moynihan and Francis Bacon, and he worked as an assistant to Oskar Kokoschka at the latter’s Salzburg-based school from 1959 until it closed in 1963 – but (in Carole Angier’s words), ‘his gods of painting were Rembrandt, Degas and Cezanne’.
The art critic Eric Newton wrote in 1955 that ‘Thomas handles…undramatic domesticities that were first discovered by Degas…with quiet reverence’. Thomson said that he found the female nude, his primary subject, the most ‘challenging’. A mid-80s painting of a reclining naked woman, her feet outstretched to a wall mirror, in which her entire lean, graceful form is reflected, has something of Francis Bacon’s hard-edged stringency and spatial compressions, yet is much more lyrically reticent in effect.