Ruth Borchard as collector and commissioner of modern British self-portraits

Association of Art Historians Annual Conference

Born near Hamburg in 1910, the writer Ruth Borchard came as a German-Jewish refugee to Britain in 1938. As ‘an enemy alien’ in wartime she was imprisoned first in Holloway Prison, then interned on the Isle of Man in 1940. In 1958 she refashioned a pre-war German diary to note names of British-based artists she intended to contact to create a collection of modern self-portraits. Between then and 1971 she collected 100 such works (setting a limit of 21 guineas for each picture) – from well known-artists such as Michael Ayrton, Anne Redpath and Keith Vaughan; emerging avant-garde painters of note like William Crozier and Francis Newton Souza; followers of David Bomberg, such as Dennis Creffield, Mario Dubsky and Dorothy Mead; and promising young artists early on in their career like Anthony Green, David Tindle and Anthony Whishaw. She also collected works by talented artists not well-known in their lifetimes, like Kenneth Brazier and Nathaniel Davies, but whose work has recently attracted critical interest.


She described this search for self-portraits as ‘dowsing for talent’, visiting many leading contemporary London galleries, both established and avant-garde, and the annual Young Contemporaries exhibitions - deliberately refraining from reading exhibition reviews - in her quest to find works showing a solid body of craftsmanship and singular honesty as well as expressing an emotive quality, the essential ‘cri de coeur’. She took great pleasure in that she herself commissioned a good number of these self-portraits.