Ceri Richards (1903-1971) was born in a small village near Swansea. He and his younger brother and sister were brought up in a highly cultured, working-class environment. His mother came from a family of craftsmen; and his father, who worked in a tinplate foundry, was active in the local church, wrote poetry in Welsh and English, and for many years conducted the Dunvant Excelsior Male Voice Choir. The children were all taught to play the piano, and became familiar with the works of Bach and Handel. In later years music would be an important stimulus to Richards’s painting – as would his youthful sensitivity to the landscapes of Gower and the cycles of nature. Richards trained initially at the Swansea School of Art before completing his studies at the Royal College of Art, (where in later years he became a teacher).
In this beautiful self-portrait from 1934, the influence of the surrealists is quite apparent, particularly that of Picasso. Nevertheless, the portrait remains very much rooted in Richards’s Welsh background, with the dark earthiness of the colours capturing the tone of the valleys where the artist grew up. It is very much the ‘portrait of the artist as a young artist,’ but an artist emerging from a very specific landscape, which the rugged shapes and the simplicity of the composition evoke so well. It is an action painting in the sense that the subject is proudly presenting the tools of his trade, the palette and brushes which he carries as emblems. The thick black lines enhance the notion that the artist is an accumulation of elements, yet the eye is drawn to the bright complexion and the affirmative expression which underline the pride Richards took in his work and his vocation. This self-portrait is quite simply his coat of arms.
Richards wrote: “One can generally say that all artists — poets, musicians, painters, are creating in their own idioms, metaphors for the nature of existence, for the secrets of our time. We are all moved by the beauty and revelation in their utterances — we notice the direction and beauty of the paths they indicate for us, and move towards them”.
The beauty to which Richards refers is intrinsic in every detail of this self-portrait which so clearly and affectionately references his roots in the Welsh valleys —which he appears to be wearing about his shoulders— and his belief in the rugged powers of art. Former pupils have described Richards as a cheerful, boisterous teacher, and these traits come through in this marvellous celebratory painting which is there to be admired any day of the week in the National Portrait Gallery on Charing Cross Road.