Oil on Canvas 216 x 173cm
This painting remains untitled as Steven had tragically died before getting the chance to decide on a title, so I have never attempted to attribute any.
This painting developed from two distinct ideas that Steven had been working on during this period. The first was the use of Paisley pattern, which had developed as a force in his work following a commission from the Paisley Museum and Art Gallery to have him and John Byrne complete portraits of each other.
Steven had travelled north to Elgin by train and spent the day sketching portraits with John, both men admitting some trepidation to the meeting and the task in hand. On his return Steven felt that a straight forward portrait just did not fit with the character of the man and wanted to go deeper to the roots that John was proud of, hence the left field idea of portraying him only through pattern, ‘Paislicus Byrnicus Virus invading Mr Gray’.
As an aside, to set the record straight, the Mr Gray of the title was not a reference to Alasdair Gray or Lanark’s skin condition of ‘dragon hide’, but rather alludes to the Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. He became increasingly intrigued by the possibilities that working with pattern offered him and it became a rich vein in his work.
The image here shows it being used as a camouflage to the real meaning of the central self portrait. Again as an aside, Steven would frequently use his own face in paintings not deliberately to convey a self portrait but just as a familiarity with the bones of the face which he would frequently pass his hand over when painting.
Now the second strand I mentioned initially was an article Steven had read of a secret book kept by Hitler. His Black Book, compiled in 1940 was a list of some 2820 individuals who were to be arrested by the SS upon the invasion and occupation of Great Britain. One such individual was Lytton Strachey, an erstwhile protagonist in Steven’s earlier work. The Black Book in fact contained several significant errors as Strachey himself had died in 1932.
The central image therefore is Steven/Strachey morphing into Hitler as some sort of quasi detective surrounded by his Paisley pattern clues to hidden identity.
The numbers on the painting refer to the pattern numbers for the cloth.