Face to Face

There are two letters from Nathaniel Davies (signed T.N.Davies) to Ruth Borchard, dated 1959 from Newton Abbot in Devon. His full name was Thomas Nathaniel Davies, but he signed his pictures Nathaniel Davies, and preferred to be called by his middle name. In the first, he writes: ‘The self-portrait is the earliest I have – apart from one or two drawings of myself. One is rather sentimental about self-portraits, as I think a painter views them with a somewhat unique personal attachment – they usually have a great exercise value to the painter…This painting was done when I was 24, twelve years ago. I was actually in the army at the time.’

Ruth was pleased with the painting but found it lacked certain (symbolic?) qualities she had observed in other works by him. So in his second letter, he writes: ‘Concerning the reservations you made – I have two other self-portraits, apart from numerous drawings of myself, but neither of them I feel reflect a great deal of the style that you may have found in my other work, partly due to a difference in subject matter, partly because of a different motive behind the painting and partly because the human face, especially one’s own doesn’t lend itself to symbols which one has in other paintings.’

He goes on to say: ‘…nowadays – I feel painters tend to alter their style, in a subtle way, according to the subjects they are painting. I think it is “the mood” which is the constant thing – the style may change, and one may be influenced one way or another, but one can still be sincere, and convey something.’

It seems likely that Ruth was first alerted to Davies’ work in Jack Beddington’s book Young Artists Of Promise. A percipient, realistic portrait of an earnest-looking, bearded, bespectacled young man – Alan Shipton by ‘Thomas N. Davies’ – is illustrated here in black and white.

In Davies’ self-portrait, the head is at once delicately and robustly modelled. The huge hazel eyes looking obliquely away are drawn with childlike forthrightness (his right eye appearing as if it has become virtually semi-detached from the face). The features are exaggerated and distorted: the generous lips, the large sweep of forehead and the thick, black, glossy hair, the angular chin (itself bounded by the most assured single brush stroke right up to the check bone). It is the prominent eyes above all – like mesmeric eyes in an Indian Mughal miniature – which communicate a sense of mystery.

Davies was a good-looking man; he was sometimes likened in his youth to the film star Douglas Fairbanks Junior. But the picture seems devoid of vanity. The strong, gentle face has something fierce, even desperate in its expression. The background is quite abstract, but may show bluish grey water below a leaden sky (maybe with reflections of trees, gone somehow crimson, in the water to the right). The face appears dramatically illuminated as though by sun suddenly piercing a gap in the clouds. The shadows on the right of his face evoke sunburn, contrasting strongly with the pallor where his face is lit. But the atmosphere is more than strictly meteorologically-defined: it seems directed by inner forces.

The vivid red shirt collar and just visible blue tie-knot, along with the abundant head of hair, suggest a man who enjoyed his appearance. For the austere, short-back-and-sides 1940s, when male flamboyance or pleasure in an individualistic appearance were usually frowned upon, his is an artistic appearance. Nathaniel’s son, the photographer Marcus Davies (in a recent conversation with the author at The Photographers’ Gallery In London, where Marcus exhibits his own works) testifies that his father enjoyed wearing bright, often bohemian-looking clothes, including a wide variety of hats.

It may be that, painted at the end of Davies’ war service, this is an especially reflective painting, in which the artist is searching out his real identity as an individual and as a painter, and contemplating the difficult return to civilian life. Perhaps something of the suffering of the war years – serving in the Royal Corps of Signals, with a long spell in North Africa - when he witnessed some terrible events, rarely alluded to in later years – is in some way contained in his look.

In its refreshing mixture of sophistication and deliberate Douanier Rousseau-like naiveté, it is a picture quite close in spirit to portraits by Christopher Wood (who had died in 1930), and Cedric Morris, the Welsh-born painter whose work was shown widely in Wales in the late 1930’s, and which quite likely Davies encountered.

Davies resumed his studies at Cardiff College of Art. His war experience had matured him, no doubt making him less ambitious as a professional painter. In 1947 he took up a teaching appointment at South Devon College of Art at Newton Abbot, remaining a full-time teacher until he retired in 1984 as Head of the College’s School of Art and Design (which had moved to nearby Torquay in the early 1970’s). For a brief period in the 1950’s he taught at the Royal College of Art, where the sculptor John Skeaping, a professor there, became a close friend. John Skeaping’s Chickens is the title of Davies’ spirited picture of a group of quirky, elegant fowl.

Davies was born in Dowlais in South Wales, where his father, a stonemason, through necessity worked as a bricklayer at the big steelworks which dominated the small town. When the steelworks shut down in 1934, the family moved to Cardiff. Nathaniel became a keen footballer, and was so good that he considered football as a career but his longstanding ambition remained to become an artist. In 1939 he became the first member of his family to go to college. At Cardiff College of Art, he was taught and befriended by the painter Ceri Richards.

Davies’ self-portraits as a young man form a small but masterly body of work – with influences ranging from Post-Impressionism to Picasso. He made another self-portrait in oils in 1947. The eyes are still large and emphatic, but staring now with fearsome directness. The moustachioed face appears less angular, less naively drawn. He wears a dark sweater and some kind of scarf or cravat (subtly red-spotted), and a wide brimmed hat decorated with equal subtlety round the brim with colourful, abstract, Klee-like shapes: a red triangle, mauve square, what looks like a yellow cross. This is the portrait of the artist as handsome bohemian – in this case, the pose rings unaffectedly true.

Further self-portraits in charcoal on paper, oil on card, and pencil on paper, over the next few years evidence the same inimitable draughtsmanship, and piercing, shadowed intensity.

There is a 1948 oil portrait of his wife Heather (her name etched in large capitals into the paint down the left-hand side of the picture) in a salmon-pink top, looking classically serene, and, from about the same time, a portrait of a woman called Pauline – her large green eyes drawn with haunting, childlike asymmetry. A characteristically graceful use of line is seen in an undated drawing of a naked woman in a series of sinuous poses.

Davies’ style changed a good deal over the years. When he wrote to Ruth that ‘painters tend to alter their style, in a subtle way…it is “the mood” which is the constant thing’, he was revealing much about himself. His work moved closer and closer to abstraction over the years, though at the end of his life, in his print-making, it returned to figuration, now informed by a powerful abstract sense. A 1962 oil portrayal of a baby in its high chair (Nathaniel’s daughter Ceri) – which relates to Kitchen Sink School of paintings of babies and infants by Jack Smith and Peter Coker (q.v) – has been, to a high degree, abstracted into simple, spare geometric shapes. The use of volumetric abstraction actually serves to heighten a sense of the presence of a real baby. (Nathaniel had two daughters, Ceri and Naomi and two sons, Nick and Marcus: his son Marcus notes that ‘my father was a very proud and loyal family man and devoted dad’). In the early 1970’s, Davies made large, clean, sparse abstract paintings, eschewing figuration entirely but, as always, a robust use of line is pre-eminent.

Paintings, and later prints, amalgamating childhood and contemporary Dowlais, evoke a sombre, politically oppressed world shot through with shafts of sudden illumination, liberating notes – literally, in the case of a bitterly ironic woodcut print (pit closures 1993) of out-of-work miners huddling together ruminatively outside gloomy terraced houses (one of which has the advertising slogan, ‘You’ll Neever [sic] Work Again - £5 Million Weekly Payout’ for Littlewood’s Pools displayed on it’s wall). In the midst is the at once quotidian and transcendent presence of a radiant white greyhound. The National Library of Wales has a copy of this print.

In a 1949 poem, he wrote:
I know these squatting men,
These silicosised coughing men,
These bitter unemployed men arguing again,
And again for fair spirituality.

Nathaniel Davies died in 1996. He once wrote: ‘You are going to look at a painting. Take nothing with you – no memories, no intellectual preparation, no sentiment, no not even a canon of beauty. No preconceived idea will help, but go with nothing and maybe you will receive something.’

Vann, Philip. Face to Face: British Self-Portraits in the Twentieth Century, Sansom & Company, Bristol, 2004

Reproduced by kind permission of Philip Vann.

 

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