A selfie state of mind: How the British perfected the art of the self-portrait

From St Dunstan in the Middle Ages to Gilbert & George in modern times, a new book looks at how the British have pioneered and developed the self-portrait

What have British artists contributed to the history of the fine arts?

The first – and, for many people, only – thing that comes to mind is landscape painting, in oils and watercolour, roughly from Cozens to Turner. Others might want to add caricature and cartoons (Hogarth, Gillray, Beerbohm etc), while more up-to-date gallery-goers might include 20th-century sculpture. What no one seems to have noticed is that British artists have helped define the history of self-portraiture at three key moments: during the Middle Ages, the 18th century, and post-1970.

Self-portraiture proper begins with the wry self-scrutiny and/or mortification of the Middle Ages rather than with Dürer and the Renaissance. The polymathic English church reformer, statesman and scholar St Dunstan (909-88) is a key pioneer – as well as being the most powerful artist who ever lived. He was a prodigy from childhood, and became the patron saint of goldsmiths .

While Abbot of Glastonbury, he painted a famous and highly influential frontispiece to a Latin grammar. A wiry outline drawing, it is a fine example of a style that would define Anglo-Saxon art. Dunstan is prostrate on a mountaintop beside a giant standing figure of Christ. A four-line prayer is inscribed over him: “I ask, merciful Christ, that you may protect me, Dunstan, and that you do not let the Taenerian storms drown me”. Taenarum was a storm-lashed coastal mountain at whose foot lay the entrance to the classical underworld. Dunstan may be humilitating himself, but he is within touching distance of the divine, and would like all future readers to admire his work and pray for him.

During the Italian Renaissance, self-portraits proliferate, due to greater appreciation for the styles and achievements of individual artists. In Britain, the Italian cult of art and artists was espoused by King Charles I. He owned self-portraits by Dürer, Rembrandt and Titian, and examples by his court painters Mytens, Rubens and Van Dyck hung in his breakfast room. Van Dyck was a prolific painter of self-portraits, one of which is currently on view at the National Portrait Gallery, which hopes to buy it. The dashing artist glances back over his shoulder as if we have momentarily caught his attention. Van Dyck was the catalyst for an upsurge in the production of glamorous self-portraits (with not a paint brush in sight) by British  artists for the rest of the century – they include William Dobson, Robert Walker, Peter Lely (court painter to Charles II), and Mary Beale, the first professional woman painter in Britain and a prolific self-portraitist.  Gilbert & George’s ‘Are You Angry or Are You Boring?’ (1977) Gilbert & George’s ‘Are You Angry or Are You Boring?’ (1977)

A major step-change takes place with the now little known portrait painter Jonathan  Richardson (1667-1745), who was also  Britain’s first art critic and theorist. Richardson had painted his own self-portrait several times, but after retiring in 1728 he drew a daily self-portrait and wrote a short poem – some later published as Morning Thoughts. Dozens of these candid off-duty images survive. Richardson is the originator of what I call the “tracker” self-portrait, and his great successors – the serial self-portraitists Hogarth, Reynolds, Barry and Zoffany – would produce some of the finest of all self-portraits exploring the flicker of creativity and emotion. Zoffany’s unfathomable expression in the tormented self-portrait made for the Uffizi self-portrait collection has been called a “rictus”. His next self-exposé featured a catgut condom.

Since about 1970, British artists have been at the forefront of attempts to put the artist at the centre of the work, not just as a passive “sitter” but as a performer. This was a reaction against the dominance of formalist abstraction and of deliberately impersonal art movements such as Pop and Minimalism. At the same time, there was an upsurge of literary biography and autobiography, a riposte to literary critics who had proclaimed the so-called “death of the author”. For the first time, there has been a succession of artists – most notoriously, Tracey Emin – whose entire careers centre on forms of self-portraiture. ‘Self-Portrait Worshipping Christ’ (c943-57) by St Dunstan ‘Self-Portrait Worshipping Christ’ (c943-57) by St Dunstan

Gilbert & George adopted a similar uniform of tight-fitting grey flannel suits, and called themselves “living sculptures’” In their drawings and photo-pieces, the clerkish gents appeared with solemn or quizzical expressions surrounded by dystopian images of east London where they live. Like Dante and Virgil passing through Hell, we cannot tell if they are innocent bystanders or malevolent predators.

Antony Gormley’s body casts have a  Magrittean feel when we see 100 of them lined up on a Merseyside beach, facing the sea and passing ships. He claims he is “everyman”, but today’s “everyman” should look more like Friar Tuck than Robin Hood. Does this mean that  Gormley, like other self-portrayers, is narcissistic? Well, yes and no. He is obviously proud of his athletic 6ft 4in frame; but he looks out, and is subject to time and tide. St Dunstan on the mountaintop and Gormley on the beach – both reach out as well as in. 

‘The Self-Portrait: a Cultural History’ by James Hall, is published by Thames & Hudson, £19.95 hardback (thamesandhudson.com)

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