Visual Arts: Reflections of a lifetime

E Brian Taylor has painted hundreds of self-portraits. Learning how to do it takes a lifetime.
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The Independent Culture
THE ARTIST E Brian Taylor painted his first self-portrait 52 years ago, at the age of 10. Since then, he has painted hundreds, either for lack of a sitter or in order to get his adrenaline flowing before a day spent painting landscapes and still-lifes.

The few dozen self-portraits that he still owns are a Rembrandt-like sequence, charting his progress from a diffident-looking boy in school tie and pullover, to the rotund and rumpled survivor of a career that has lurched, as he puts it, from bad to good to worse.

He has always painted prolifically, but has never had a regular job. Periods of penury have been punctuated by peaks of plenty. In his early forties, he and his wife, Stephanie, lived in an 11,000 square foot mansion set in 90 acres with two permanent gardeners in Denbighshire. He invented a board game, Kensington, which netted him pounds 200,000. Then he was broke again, and fending off the taxman. He and Stephanie now rent a 15th-century stone cottage with a studio barn in the 1998 best-kept village of Eccleston, near Chester, which is part of the Westminster estate. The old duke closed the pub. Now, there is little for him to do there except paint.

His collection of self-portraits, he says, reveals more than photographs would have done. They show not only how he saw himself at different times in his life - but sometimes how he wished others to see him. His self- portrait at the age of 10 is a piece of innocent self-expression. So are his most recent ones. In between, there is some youthful pretentiousness. He continues to experiment - but it has taken a lifetime to shed ambition and just paint.

E Brian Taylor is represented by Gallery Duncan, Duncan Terrace, London N1 (0171-837 5856), and by the Bridgegate Gallery, Chester (01244 319619)

1. Age 10. Oil paint and canvas bought by parents. "Not trying to prove anything, just painting."

2. Age 15. Dull colours, uncertain brushwork. "An insecure, pimply youth," he says. He was the only boy in his class to disobey the art master's instruction to use a ruler to draw straight lines - and the only one to fail O-level art.

3. Age 20. A student at the Slade. "This portrait was chucked under a bed for 40 years. It's dreadful. It shows what happens when artists start to pick up erudite garbage from teachers and books. They stop being themselves."

4. Aged 21. For the first time, he uses two mirrors to avoid looking head-on into the canvas. "This is better. I'm totally absorbed, getting the feel of the skin, the fabric. I think you've got to be in a state of grace to paint really well."

5. Age 24. Graduated, with his own studio in Ross-on-Wye, but "selling bugger-all". "Although I'm broke, there's a self-confidence about it. Here's someone who seems to know what he's doing."

6. Age 42. Married with two daughters, living in the village of Skull, Bantry Bay, on the west coast of Ireland. "They don't tax artists in Ireland." Surly-looking? "Well, there wasn't much light."

7. Age 52. Living in a homely farmhouse, also in Denbighshire, rented for a peppercorn pounds 80 a year. The board game Kensington has paid off. "I was in the money. I just painted away."

8. Age 56. Broke again, pursued by the tax man, but wiser. "I'm not questioning how to construct the painting as I go along. It's a subconscious thing. I'm just doing it, like I did at the age of 10."