Throughout his life, John often returned to the self-portrait as a way of exploring the numerous guises he created for himself. The present work was executed three years after John completed his studies at the Slade, whilst as an instructor at an art school affiliated to Liverpool's University College. Liverpool stimulated and inspired him, making him more keenly responsive to the visible world. John revelled in the spectacle of human diversity in the city: it was in Liverpool that he acquired a lifelong passion for the Romany Gypsy culture.
During his time there he also took up etching, his first experiments including a number of portrait studies of himself in various poses. John was greatly influenced by the work of Old Master painters, and these early self-portraits seek to emulate Rembrandt both technically and stylistically. Indeed, the present lot seems to deliberately invite comparison: his face, touched by warm light, emerges from the dark shadows of the background. The colouring is sombre, the tone is low. For Malcolm Easton and Michael Holroyd, 'this introductory period is Rembrandt' (M. Easton and M. Holroyd, The Art of Augustus John, London, 1974, p. 8).