The Ruth Borchard Collection of artists' self-portraits, collected throughout the mid-twentieth century, is currently exhibiting at The Lightbox. Ruth Borchard was a strong-willed art collector who took her own gut instinct above all other advice. She spent years visiting student art shows and contemporary galleries, contacting the artists whose work she felt the strongest connection to, rather than who had received the best reviews. However, whether it was a conscious decision, or a reflection of the times, the 100-strong original collection features the self-portraits of only five women. So in this week’s blog, we celebrate the work and lives of these five talented, creative, and unapologetic female artists.

Ithell Colquhoun (1906-1988)

Colquhoun, Ithell (1926) © Ruth Borchard Collection, courtesy of Piano Nobile, Robert Travers (Works of Art) Ltd

Ithell Colquhoun was born in India in 1906, the daughter of a civil servant. She returned to England for her education, eventually landing at the prestigious Slade School of Art, where she studied from 1927-31. Colquhoun soon became known for her interest in the occult, and esoteric literature inspired her work.

Her career is marked by surreal paintings of religious and mystical compositions, magical realism, botanical scenes with exaggerated anthropomorphic qualities, and hints at feminine sexuality. In her letters with Ruth Borchard, they discussed spiritual themes at depth, including Kabbalah and the Jewish mystical tradition.

Colquhoun’s self-portrait was painted around 1929, with a green-tinged, muddy-hued palette typical of much early twentieth-century British art. This is a daringly unabashed female self-portrait for its time, as she wears a figure-hugging sweater and sits with a boldly raised leg. Everything in the picture has a dynamic, sculpted look – even flesh and water seem to be modelled out of stone.


Jean Cooke (1927-2008)

Cooke, Jean (1954) © Ruth Borchard Collection, courtesy of Piano Nobile, Robert Travers (Works of Art) Ltd

Jean Cooke was born in London in 1927. After studying at the Royal College of Art under Ruskin Spear and Carel Weight, she had many solo exhibitions throughout her career. She once described the experience of painting as ‘truly dying and coming alive every day’. Later, Cooke was a lecturer at the Royal Academy and her works are in the National Gallery, Tate and the Royal Academy collections.

When she was approached by Ruth Borchard for a self-portrait, Cooke was not initially pleased with the small fee offered. However she was equally unimpressed with the lack of women artists represented in the collection, so compromised, quoting, ‘I am not a feminist but to have only 3 women painters out of 91 make [sic] rather poor odds so 21 gns it is.’ Characteristically, she then went straight to the point: ‘Are you going to come and pick up the painting?’

In her 1955 self-portrait, an intense and almost unnerving female figure is seen against a greyish-yellow domestic background. The huge eyes stare out questioningly, which along with the reddened cheeks and nose and uncertain mouth, have an urgent and ominous effect.


Lucinda Mackay (1941-)

Mackay, Lucinda (1971) © Ruth Borchard Collection, courtesy of Piano Nobile, Robert Travers (Works of Art) Ltd

Lucinda Mackay studied Fine Art at Edinburgh University and College of Art, graduating in 1965, and several of her paintings are in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery Collection.

Although arguably less well known than some of her other female counterparts in the collection, Mackay’s self-portrait stands out in its modernity, representing a new era of independence in young women. Painted around late 1971, Mackay was around aged 30, and it was a time when Women’s Liberation was beginning to make a mark. She portrays herself as thoroughly modern and alternatively fashion-conscious: wide-brimmed hat, black feather boa, and a hippie laced white dress.  

Her delicately feminine features appear almost doll-like, but at odds with this is her self-assertive, unwavering stare, suggesting she is not to be underestimated. The watch on her wrist may be significant: along with clocks, their presence in portraits often represents the passing of time, perhaps here the passing of youth.


Dorothy Mead (1928-1975)

Mead, Dorothy (1960) © Ruth Borchard Collection, courtesy of Piano Nobile, Robert Travers (Works of Art) Ltd

Born in London in 1928, Dorothy Mead was a mature student at the Slade School of Art from 1956-1959. She was the first woman president of the student annual exhibiting society, Young Contemporaries, and won both the Figure Painting Prize and the Steer Prize. Despite this, in 1959 she was asked to leave the Slade, because she refused to sit the course on perspective. She believed that the stylistic approach was invalid, and her explanations were rejected.

Mead went on to become a lecturer at institutions such as Goldsmiths College, Chelsea College of Art, where she was known for her style, personality, and refusal to follow tradition. She was a principled feminist, apparently once remarking that if she changed her name to George, she would have stood a greater chance of selling her work.

This self-portrait was painted when Mead was about thirty-two. The thick, deliberate brushstrokes portray features which are strong yet delicately abstracted. There are surprising dashes of vibrant colour, and despite the abstractness of the image, a vivid sense of overall structure takes form and a gentle authority radiates.


Anne Redpath (1895-1965)

Redpath, Anne (1943) © Ruth Borchard Collection, courtesy of Piano Nobile, Robert Travers (Works of Art) Ltd

Anne Redpath was born in 1895 in Selkirk. She studied at Edinburgh College of Art, and was a key figure in ‘The Edinburgh School’ group of artists. Redpath is known for her vivid and colourful paintings of household objects, flowers and landscapes.

Redpath was president of the Scottish Society of Women Artists (1944-1947), became an associate of The Royal Scottish Academy in 1947, and in 1952 she became the first woman Academician. In 1955, she was made an OBE for her work as "Artist" and "Member of the Board of Management of the Edinburgh College of Art".

Her self-portrait initially appears quite flatly hued and severe, but on close inspection bright splashes of colour run throughout. Bright blue and pink shines out of her hair, skin, and clothes, perhaps reflecting her renowned outgoing personality.

When she sent her self-portrait to Ruth Borchard in 1964, she took great care to point out that the painting was from 20 years earlier, writing ‘As you can imagine at 69 I don’t look like the portrait now… [and] the date would have to be marked as I shouldn’t like anyone to think I paint myself 20 years younger.’

Ruth Borchard Collection: Artists' Self-Portraits is showing until 25 June at The Lightbox. Entry with a £7.50 Annual Pass or £4.50 Day Pass, under 18s free.

Banner image: Ruth Borchard Collection: Artists' Self-Portraits © The Lightbox.