The National Portrait Gallery is my favourite art gallery in London. No matter how many times you go, there is always something you may not have paid attention to before which makes you go: Wow. Yesterday afternoon it was the portrait by Ruskin Spear of his fellow dauber, Francis Bacon.
I noticed that Spear was born in 1911. Hence, this year is the centenary of this most talented of 20th Century painters, and a good ol’ London boy to boot.
Ruskin Spear, RA was born on 30 June 1911 in Hammersmith. He won a scholarship to the Hammersmith School of Art at the age of 15 and a few years later another to the Royal College of Art. He was most influenced by Walter Sickert and the Camden Town Group. His career took off after his diploma show at the Royal College in 1934 although it was some time before he had his first one man show, in 1951. He was elected to the Royal Academy in 1954 and awarded the CBE in 1979. Spear taught at his alma mater, the Royal College of Art between 1948 and 1975, having taught previously at the Croydon College of Art.
Although an accomplished landscape and cityscape painter, Ruskin Spear is best remembered as a portrait artist. In addition to the noteworthies featured here, he also captured in oils Laurence Olivier, Lord Grade, Lord Hailsham and many others. He loved to hone his skills by painting, drawing, sketching the locals in the Hammersmith area, particularly in pubs: he was partial to a pint.
The pictures featured here clearly demonstrate the key attribute of the modern portrait master: the ability not just to do a good likeness, but to capture the essence of the subject’s character, not only as it actually is, but also as the public perceives it to be. Wilson is shifty, secretive; Bacon is scary and troubled; both are inscrutible.
The portrait of Sid James is particularly delightful, a quite recent acquisition by the NPG. James’ squishy comic face (described by somebody as a deflated leather football) is a gift to any portrait painter, so you feel that Spear has answered the directive to do something different. And here he has portrayed the comic actor in black and white on the telly as the TV viewer would experience him in his front room. Perspective is completely abandoned, giving the work a totally 2D feel. Here Spear has used collage in a pleasing way: not too much, not too little – just right. Painted in 1962, it strongly evokes the pre-Beatles brown world of post-war Britain. James is depicted amusingly, but funny in a sad way, confused and uncertain, again a reflection of the times. Masterly.
Spear suffered from polio from a youth and was wheelchair-bound much of the time. He died on 17 January 1990.
I am indebted to the National Portrait Gallery for their kind permission to use these superb images.
Portraits by Ruskin Spear in the National Portrait Gallery collection.
Portraits of Ruskin Spear in the National Portrait Gallery collection.
Portrait of the Week (Guardian, 2001).
Desert Island Disks. Spear was featured in 1973. Note bizarre selection of Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. His son happened to be a band member!