Portrait d’un homme, 1958

Roger Descombes was born in La Chaux-de-Fonds in Switzerland in 1915; after the war he and his young mother moved to France, where at the age of twelve he had his first exhibition, showing sixty watercolours. Two years later he won the Conté prize for drawing, and started working in Paris as a newspaper illustrator. In 1933 he began studies at l’École des Beaux Arts in Paris, continuing at the Glasgow School of Art between 1936 and 1940. During the second world war he lived in London, working as a teacher at the School of Arts in Bromley (where he met his wife June), producing illustrations for Vogue and other fashion journals, and exhibiting paintings and prints at the Redfern Gallery in London’s West End.

Paysage artificiel, 1943

In 1954 the Descombes moved to Geneva, where until 1960 Roger had his own gallery. In the early sixties he worked as a graphic artist for the botanical garden in Geneva, then as a freelance artist, with several exhibitions in France and Switzerland. As well as developing a distinctive modernist style in painting, Roger Descombes specialised in copper engraving, working directly on the plate to produce simple yet powerful images. An exhibition catalogue of July 1971 captures some of this quality: ‘Descombes has without doubt retained all his ability in terms of precision and purity of line, but in the oeuvres libres he goes way beyond mundane superficiality to free-fall into adventurous exploration and analysis of the unconscious. Using the human form, he journeys from innocence to experience, from physical beauty to spiritual fulfilment. There is a certain kind of pantheism about this artist from a Calvinistic background, and an intellectual eroticism which is the principal characteristic of his engraved works.’

It was this quality which brought Roger Descombes to the attention of the noted erotica collector Gérald Nordmann, who commissioned sets of engravings for Paul Verlaine’s Oeuvres libres in 1975 and Pierre Louÿs’ erotic poetry in 1977.

Roger Descombes’ daughter, Louise Jacot-Descombes, has created an excellent bilingual (French/English) website about Descombes’ career and varied output; the English language version can be found here.

Example illustration