Sunday, 26 April 2015

Ravaged faces - " the portraiture of loss"

We think of Rembrandt as the master painter of old age, of faces no longer young and fresh, and here are three artists who show the ravages of time, of war injuries, and of disease, in memorable portraits:  Antonio Rossellino, Victor Willing and Henry Tonks.

Antonio Rossellino's sculpted portrait of  Dr Giovanni Chellini shows the beauty and dignity of old age.   The gauntness is partly due to the process of taking a life mask for the sculptor to work from, as the subject lies prone on his back and his head is swaddled with cloth and has breathing tubes in his nostrils for the pouring of the plaster. (Cennino Cennini advises that for important sitters the plaster is mixed with tepid rose water, rather than water from the well or river: see "Il Libro dell'Arte".)  Dr Chellini was about 77 or 78 at the time,  and the young Rossellino conveys the delicate papery thinness of an old person's skin in this solid marble bust, as well as Dr Chellini's commanding presence.

Dr. Giovanni di Antonio Chellini da San Miniato   Antonio Rossellino, 1456
© V&A Museum 

"In his preaching of 'Truth to Nature' [Henry] Tonks managed to convey a moral quality, a conviction that Beauty was somehow incidental, a side product of the pursuit of Truth; that it would be a reward unexpectedly discovered in the most unpromising material, provided that we followed certain disciplines and were faithful to our experience."  Helen Lessore, pupil at the Slade, in the 1920s.

Self portrait at 70  Victor Willing
© the artist's estate   Pallant House Gallery
Victor Willing was a pupil at the Slade in the 1950s, where he met his wife, Paula Rego.  This ironically-titled self portrait was one of his last paintings,  as he died from  multiple sclerosis in 1988, aged sixty.  

Henry Tonks himself left a career as a surgeon to be an artist. He was a formidable and uncompromising teacher at the Slade School of Art, (UCL)  from 1892  until he retired in 1930.
He served as a medical orderly during WWI and as war artist at Harold Gillies' pioneering plastic surgery unit at Queen Mary's Hospital, Sidcup.  Here he recorded the shattered faces of Gillies'  servicemen patients in a series of unflinching pastel portraits.

To see these painfully personal, silent images, visit the Hunterian Museum in Lincoln's Inn Square, London, or google "Henry Tonks", where you can read Dr. Biernoff's excellent essay.
see Dr Susannah Biernoff, Birkbeck College London, "The Portraiture of Loss", in Ampersand Magazine 2010/11 (

Advanced Dressing station in France 1918    Henry Tonks
© Imperial War Museum London

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