Object of the Week 375: Tomás Harris, Self-Portrait, c.1951
By , on 22 February 2019
Today’s entry has been written by Emeline Kaddour, as part of her History of Art Material Studies (HAMS) placement at UCL Art Museum. During her placement Kaddour catalogued our Tomás Harris holdings in preparation for a pop-up exhibition and lecture by Inigo Jones, freelance writer, on ‘Who was Tomás Harris?’ The event was well-attended, and included Neil MacGregor, founding director of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin and former director of the National Gallery and British Museum.
Today’s object of the week is a self-portrait by the artist, art dealer, collector, writer and double-spy Tomás Harris (1908-1964). It is owned by the UCL Art Museum as part of a larger collection of Harris’ works which include an early drawing, 15 prints (8 of them were recently accessioned), 26 printing plates and an oil painting. The museum also holds Goya prints that were formerly part of Harris’ own print collection.
The self-portrait was exhibited on January 24th, 2019 in the context of a pop-up exhibition on Tomás Harris, held at the UCL Art Museum. The pop-up was organized in conjunction with a lecture at the UCL History of Art Research Seminar held by independent writer Inigo Thomas who is currently completing a biography on Tomás Harris. Previous to the talk, it allowed visitors to have an overview of Harris’ life and multiple interests.
Tomás Harris was born from a Spanish Mother, and a British Father from Jewish German roots. His father ran the Spanish Gallery in Mayfair (opened 1907), dealing mostly in Spanish Art. At the age of fifteen, he won the Trevelyan-Goodall scholarship to the Slade School of Art and studied there between 1923 and 1926. Harris continued his studies in the arts, but in 1928 he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and became an art dealer, eventually joining the family business.
At the time, the family and played a significant role in promoting the knowledge of Spanish Art in Britain. The gallery held exhibitions of works by Diego Velázquez, Jusepe de Ribera, Francisco de Zurbarán and Francisco de Goya. Harris also made important contributions to the study of Spanish art and is the author of a two-volume publication on Goya’s engravings and lithographs.
Soon after the start of the Second World War, Harris was recruited by MI5, where he became the case officer for arguably the most successful double agent of the war, Juan Pujol, better known by his code-name Garbo. Together, Pujol and Tomás Harris convinced the Germans that the D-Day landings would take place near Calais, and not in Normandy.
After the War, he moved to Mallorca in Spain. There, he started dedicating more time to art collecting and art making, including landscape prints and drawings, prints inspired by Goya as well as paintings, ceramics, stained glass and tapestry designs. Tomás Harris’ intense and hectic life ended in a car accident in Mallorca, which some hold to be suspicious.
One can say that Harris had a really fascinating history. In order to illustrate it at best, the pop-up featured a selection of works, including one drawing and eight prints. Amongst those prints, two were exhibited with their original printing plates allowing to get a sense of the artistic process. Two Goya inspired prints were showed in relation to an original Goya, and Harris’ own published catalogue on Goya prints, insisting on the important influence Goya had on Harris’ artistic practice.
One of the most significant works displayed was Thomas Harris’ previously mentioned self-portrait, made in drypoint on paper. Drypoint is a technique Harris experienced a lot with. It consists in directly scratching a design into a copperplate, with a sharply pointed instrument. Then, some ink is applied on the plate and the plate is pressed onto paper. As opposed to engraving, the ink does not penetrate a lot into the plate. Instead, it stays on the metal burr raised by the point, ending in creating a soft and velvety line.
The result on the self-portrait is outstanding. Drypoint elegantly allows the organic curves to swirl around the artist’s face. This self-portrait created a lot of surprise amongst the museum visitors, testifying for its mystery. Probably made around 1951 in Mallorca, it is really unconventional as the head is surrounded with foliage and organic forms. I think this artwork transcribes quite accurately Harris’ personality and artistic interests at the time. As in many other of his works, including landscape dry points, nature appears as a recurrent motif. Other proofs of this drypoint can be found in prestigious collections such as the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia.
Tomás Harris tragically died in a car accident in Mallorca, which some hold to be suspicious. The art historian and spy Anthony Blunt wrote an obituary for his friend and also contributed a personal introduction to the Tomás Harris exhibition held at the Courtauld Institute Galleries in 1975.
Harris’s sister Enriqueta was an art historian and worked for more than twenty years at the Warburg Institute. She passed away in more peaceful circumstances in 2006. It was Enriqueta who donated works by and from the collections of Harris to several institutions, including the UCL Art Museum. In addition, she made an endowment for an annual visiting lectureship at the UCL History of Art Department in honour of her brother. The Tomás Harris Lectures continue to be held once a year, and the lectures have seen some accomplished scholars in early stages of their career including Joseph Koerner, Eva Lajer-Burckhart, Angela Rosenthal and David Joselit.
 Blunt, Anthony. Tomás Harris 1908-1964: paintings, dry-points, lithographs, tapestries, stained glass and ceramics (London: Courtauld Institute Galleries, 1975).