Stanley Spencer, whose progression from the vigour and hope of youth can be followed through his various self-portraits, produced this work, Self Portrait 1914, before, or just at the beginning of the First World War. He is not entirely comfortable, the young man depicted: there is a trace of concern in the dark eyes and in the way he holds his mouth, lips slightly compressed – is he fearful, the viewer wonders, did he doubt the bullish claims that there would be no war, and if there was it would all be over by Christmas, that war, as the jingoistic claims went, would be a jolly holiday in the sun for a month or two, and then back to normal and life would resume.
But whatever is to come, the young Spencer was prepared to face it down. He gazes calmly out at the viewer, unflinchingly. His chin is raised and his jaw is set determinedly. He will accept his fate with courage, despite his bouts of ill-health. This ill-health saw his mother encourage him to sign on as an ambulance man rather than a serving soldier, and obediently, he did as she said. But the needs of war took him away from home, first still as an ambulance man and then as an infantryman.
The darkness painted around the portrait, the shadows that seem to crowd around his face and shoulders, are perhaps Spencer's subconscious concerns about his future – everyone's future – and yet there is lightness in the portrait too. The left side of his face is lit and this serves to emphasise the strong bones of his face: long strong nose, elegant but firm jaw and the jutting yet dimpled chin, a charming mix of strength and innocence that could be said to be a metaphor for English youth and patriotism in that time and that place.
Oddly, Spencer seems to have highlighted his neck, a strong column that seems a little too long for true perspective. Additional brushstrokes, since discoloured to a pinkish grey, were added, experts have found, at a later date: but whether they were to correct a perceived fault or emphasise the stress on the neck, Spencer never made clear. The painting can be found in the Tate Gallery, in oil on canvas – but it is not currently on display.