Cliff Holden

Documents: 2005


The extract below is taken from Face to Face: British Self-Portraits in the Twentieth Century by Philip Vann (Sansom & Company, 2004).
[Hardcover: ISBN 1-904537-08-1 / Paperback: ISBN 1-904537-11-1]


There is no surviving correspondence between Cliff Holden and Ruth Borchard (though Ruth did keep a business card for Marstrand Designers, the design studio that Holden set up in 1959 in Marstrand, Sweden, along with two Swedish designers). In her notebook, by Holden's name, Ruth has written 'Oct 62' (presumably when she first wrote to him) noting she paid twenty guineas for the picture.

Holden's self-portrait is signed and dated 1947. Born in Manchester in 1919, he was around twenty-eight when he painted it. He has said that he had been 'consciously searching for a master', and had had the great good fortune to find one of genius in David Bomberg. By the time he made this picture, he had known Bomberg for about three years.

Bomberg taught that good painting, founded on structured drawing and a formal disciplined approach, nevertheless aspires to evoke 'something that is boundless & infinite... something unidentifiable & yet has form but which is not synonymous with nor can exist as form only.' Certainly, Holden's self-portrait is firmly structured yet goes far beyond the mere outward form to partake perhaps of 'something that is boundless & infinite'.

The overall composition is dynamic and tight-knit, the colours earthy but shot through with light, the brushstrokes applied with sensual vigour, the face forceful and inspiring. Holden has taken great risks in the free yet determined way he evokes the shadowed side of the nose, the stretch of illuminated forehead and cheek, the thick, dark hair. His right eye is seen perhaps to focus on the viewer, the left is a black mark, its apparent pupil a large speck of brown. The area beneath the mouth and around the chin is hard to 'read' in any academic sense: perhaps (as in a 1960 photo of the artist in a Swedish exhibition catalogue) there is a slight hint of a beard and he is smoking a pipe. All the painterly risks he has taken have paid off superbly. In a 1960 catalogue preface, Andrew Forge (q.v.) quotes Holden as saying: 'What a painter has to do is not recognise either the object or the image but to recognise the kind of sensation that has produced the image.'

Holden took further risks in his radically sombre palette. His 1950 oil painting Seated Figure (Arts Council Collection) eschews conventional outward appearances in favour of piling darkness on darkness: the featureless brown-ness of the subject's face is set against an even murkier background. A 1948 painting by Holden of a standing figure (from the collection of the late Marek Zulawski q.v.) is remarkable in evoking , through a range of dark brown and olive tones, the most delicately graceful stance. Light coming through what seems to be a greyish window falls on the side of the head in a fragile golden line - the only brilliant note in a painting whose palette is remarkably gloomy.

Holden had initially studied agriculture and veterinary science but, while studying philosophy at the City Literary Institute in 1944, had encountered David Bomberg, and also the disciple of Bomberg, Dorothy Mead (q.v.). Holden and Mead later married. His first sighting of Bomberg - at an evening class on drawing at the Institute - was a revelation: 'There he was, patiently expounding his basic principles to middle-aged ladies. I'd been disillusioned with the curriculum of modern art schools... that merry-go-round of teacher training teachers who in turn produce teachers. I had been consciously searching for a master,' There is no doubt that Bomberg fulfilled this role perfectly for both Holden and Mead, who together attended Bomberg's classes at the Borough Polytechnic in 1945. It was in that year that Bomberg and Holden - who later said he then had a 'Messianic feeling about Bomberg' - created the Borough Group. Holden was the Group's President from 1946-8, resigning the following year over some matter of policy.

In 1952 Holden was invited to exhibit along with three other English artists in Stockholm. Young Swedish artists had discovered a vital affinity between the work of Holden - an unconscious link totally on his part - and that of Evert Lunquist who had painted in Sweden in the thirties. In 1956, Holden who settled in Sweden, set up an interior design studio in Gothenburg, which moved to Marstrand in 1959. Over the years, Holden has promoted the work of British artists in Sweden, and vice versa.

Here is an extract from Holden's article, 'David Bomberg: an artist as teacher' (Studio International, March 1967):

Bomberg's teaching methods were dogmatic and contradictory. It was a sort of battle between a trinity of teacher, student and model, a fight which could not take place away from the materials. In this fight he was anything but restrictive. If the student was painting in a perpetual gloom he would be shown means of lightening his palette, if he was tentative he would be encouraged to... throw it on in shovelfuls, to walk on it, or attack it with the knife - any means of making the mark was permissible... But if the student were facile, using an aesthetic line, then Bomberg would give him a great lump of charcoal and cite Modigliani and John as examples of men who would tie the tool to the big toe to escape the domination of a facile hand. On the other hand he didn't allow any student to completely abandon himself to the line, to the paint, the sensuality of the brush; and he had no respect for the brute force of the blowlamp, the bicycle, or any other medium whcih savoured of trickery.

The painter and art critic Andrew Forge (q.v.) wrote in the catalogue for Holden's 1960 Swedish exhibition:

Holden is a difficult artist... His paintings don't fit into one category... They catch one on the wrong foot. He has a brutal and sometimes arbitrary-seeming approach to his matière which at first sight might suggest the sort of nihilistic gambling with paint that has been one of the orthodoxies of the last few years. But it is clear that Holden is playing for far higher stakes than chancy evocative effects: whatever he does is done with will and intention and if his image materialises under the blade of a bulldozer or in the heart of a tornado, then its triumph is even more substantial. What he claims in each picture is a stillness and an absolute clarity of sensation and to make his claim good he has to risk chaos and defilement.

Many thanks to Philip Vann for permission to reproduce this chapter here.

[Page last updated: 24th May 2005]

© Painter's Estate