Literature: Llewellyn, Sacha, and Paul Liss. Portrait of an Artist. Liss Llewellyn, 2021, p.306.
Glasgow-born artist (Herbert) James Gunn briefly studied art at Glasgow and Edinburgh before moving to the Académie Julian in Paris in 1911.
In 1929, Gunn decided to devote himself to portraiture and soon established a prolific and successful career in London. His portraits are understated and technically brilliant, with a close attention to detail. His distinguished sitters included Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip and the Queen Mother, as well as a plethora of prime ministers, field marshals, judges, dons, bankers and actors.
Self-portraits by Gunn are rare, and this work is far grander in style and execution than an earlier known example painted in the mid 20s. The painting shows Gunn at his studio-home in Pembroke Walk, Kensington, during World War II. In fact, Gunn spent much of the war years with his family in Carsethorn, a seaside village on the Solway in Kirkcudbrightshire, so the underlying mood of this self-evocation is all the more poignant. A consequence of London’s wartime blackouts, whilst in the capital Gunn portrays himself as an artist languishing in Stygian gloom – striking a pose between melancholia and heroic patriotism.
Using a formal and statesman-like composition, Gunn show himself impeccably dressed, as he would have been to receive his most distinguished sitters, surrounded by the theatrical regalia of his profession: props, drapes, paints, brushes, and his mahl stick, which juts out of the vase behind him. The nude study on the wall can be identified as a work that sold at Christie’s in 2010.