Inspired by our exhibition ‘Lucian Freud: The Self-Portraits’, we looked through the RA Collection to find self-portraits by our own Academicians. From conventional portrayals of the artist at work to some more unusual manifestations of the self – here are the 10 top self-portraits from the RA Collection.
Chantal Joffe sits with her daughter on a beach near Hastings in the south of England. She stares at the viewer with her arm draped over her daughter’s shoulder, presenting herself as a stoic, protective mother. The artist’s bright blue skirt alludes to the colour associated with the Virgin Mary, emphasising the importance of motherhood in Joffe’s understanding of herself. Talking about this painting, she said "I want to see life reflected back at me and the things I know. That’s what I try to paint."
This is the only self-portrait of the artist Gertrude Hermes. Best known as a sculptor and printmaker, here Hermes uses both wood-engraving and linocut, allowing her to print in multiple colours. Her chiselled features reflect her skill as a sculptor, and her unwavering gaze reveals her personal determination. Hermes fought against the exclusion of women artists at the Royal Academy, demanding that they be invited to the Annual Dinner. In 1967 she was among the first four female Academicians to attend the Dinner alongside their male counterparts.
Gilbert Spencer sits in his garden studio in his Berkshire home, where he lived from 1936 to 1970. Spencer hated working indoors, but in the winter the weather conditions made painting in the open air impossible. He looks towards the viewer with a look of pure concentration. This intense stare is actually the artist regarding himself in a mirror. With one eye closed, he attempts to visualise the proportions of his reflection to accurately capture his likeness on the canvas.
LONDON CRIME is a collage of newspaper headlines relating to violent attacks in the city, from the series LONDON PICTURES. The artists Gilbert & George impose themselves onto the image, suited and overseeing the reported events, or maybe looking on as incidental witnesses. Their hazy presence reminds us that we are all part of the fabric of news stories and of daily life in the city.
This painting is characteristic of Michael Craig-Martin’s style, using vivid, complementary colours to create simplified and eye-catching works. The subject matter is unusual for Craig-Martin, who usually depicts everyday objects such as briefcases, lamps and coffee cups. He treats himself in the same manner as these inanimate objects, creating a self-portrait that is stark and original. Embodying himself in his unique style shows how Craig-Martin’s artistic output is embedded in his skin, becoming an intrinsic part of his identity.
Jean Cooke painted many self-portraits in her career. Here she depicts herself at work in her studio, in a characteristically domestic and unglamorous setting. Cooke began making this painting wearing an old-fashioned brass fireman’s helmet – the ghostly outline of which can be seen above the artist’s head. When her husband, the artist John Bratby, disposed of the helmet against Cooke’s wishes she almost gave up on the painting. Glimpsing the unfinished canvas through the window from outside however, she decided that it was worth persevering and completed the painting without the helmet.
The warm-hearted, jovial character of Bramley is evoked through his smiling expression and wispy moustache. The large hat and bowtie give a sense of refinement but also indicate a playfulness, reflected in the loose brushwork of the painting. This self-portrait was painted for the artist’s wife, perhaps the reason why he gives such an intimate reflection of his inner personality.
The two presiding influences of John Bellany’s life are evident in this painting: religion and the sea. Born into a Calvinist family of fishermen and boat-builders in the seaside village of Port Seton near Edinburgh, Bellany was preoccupied with these subjects from a young age. He made this self-portrait while still a student at the Royal College of Art, yet the seagulls flying overhead and the crucifix around his neck reveal a fascination even at this early stage in his career.
The intense detail and lighting of Lawrence’s face are starkly contrasted to the dark, almost impervious background. His skin seems to be radiating light, giving the sense that this portrait goes deeper than surface appearance; it is a psychological study of the artist. The lack of objects and background features make this an intimate and private painting, not intended to promote the artist or showcase his many accolades; at the time he was President of the Royal Academy.
A map may seem an unconventional format for a self-portrait, but Grayson Perry created this work using the medieval walled city as a metaphor for himself. He compares the wall to his skin and the changing urban landscape to his changing internal characteristics – as cities are built up in layers, so too are our personalities constructed by layers of experience. The geographical situation of the city is also crucial to its identity, just as we are shaped by the environment around us.