Looking at Paintings (6): Self-portrait of William Shackleton

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This is a self-portrait of the artist, William Shackleton, born in 1872 into a prosperous Yorkshire family. The oil painting, 54 x 40 cm in size, is part of the permanent collection at Cartwright Hall in Bradford.

Bradford Museums and Galleries; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

William Shackleton was the son of a prosperous Bradford paper manufacturer and merchant. He was educated at the local Grammar School, studied art at Bradford Technical College, and in 1893 won a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Art in London.

The self-portrait was painted in 1895 when the artist was 23 and in the latter stage of his art education at the Royal College.

Self-portraits offer a challenge to artists to present images of themselves to the world. They can offer marketing opportunities by demonstrating the artist’s talents and by linking his or her face to a particular art style and desired self-image.

What does this image of the artist say to me?

I see a young man, elegantly dressed; a silk handkerchief pokes from his breast pocket. He is well-groomed, with a bushy moustache that twists rakishly upward. He looks to his right, his head thrown back a little, and there is an expression of concentration on his face, particularly in his eyes. It is likely that he is facing an artist’s easel, with a mirror to his right that he glances into before applying the paint to the canvas.

The overall message I get is that here is a confident, affluent young man; one who can paint very well – see the way he captures the light falling across him from the left, and by the subtle changes in skin tone and hint of stubble on his chin.

This is most likely the impression he wants to convey to potential clients – typically drawn from the same social strata as the artist and who would recognise another of their class. The message to the world is that this is a competent pair of artistic hands; your image would be safe in his, and you would probably spend agreeable time in his company tuned into the same values and interests.

The style of painting that we see here is of its time: conventional and competent in its execution.

However, the interesting thing is how radically his style changed in later years. In 1896, a year after the self-portrait was painted, Shackleton won another scholarship, enabling him to study in Paris and in Italy and leading to closer exposure to art movements in Europe, particularly Impressionism.

On his return to Britain, Shackleton’s work became more impressionistic and symbolist in style – see the examples here.

 Bradford Museums and Galleries; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Bradford Museums and Galleries; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

It also captured the public’s attention and mood for more ethereal art images, and he became a highly successful painter; one who represented Britain in the prestigious Venice Biennale art exhibition in 1910 and again in 1922.

The self-portrait presents us then, with the image of a man on the cusp of change in his life. He undoubtedly could have made a comfortable living painting portraits in the style we see here.

But he exudes in this work the air of a man who would cope artistically, temperamentally and socially with any change that came his way, including the successful artistic direction he was to take.

Read more about the artist and his achievements on my ‘Not Just Hockney’ website .

SHACKLETON, William. The polar-star. Bradford

Colin Neville is a retired university teacher, author of four non-fiction books (on education and local history topics), online seller of art & design-related fine and limited edition books, gardener, chef, granddad.He lives in West Yorkshire, near Ilkley. Currently working on developing an information database of Bradford (Yorkshire) born artists, past and present.

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