On Thursday evening, I was asked if I would write something about Howard Hodgkin. I tried to record as much as I could from memory and what I wrote was published in abbreviated form in Saturday’s Guardian. But since it was necessarily cut down, I am now posting the full text for the historical record:-
I wish I could remember how and when it was that I first got to know Howard Hodgkin.
All I can remember is that, when I was Director of the National Portrait Gallery, I knew that he had painted a portrait of Terence Conran and his then wife, Caroline, which was said to be unfinished. I was intrigued by the idea that I might be able to persuade him to complete it, so that it could join the collection. But I never did.
It must have been when I moved next door to the National Gallery. Howard had been a Trustee of the National Gallery from 1978 to 1985, when Noel Annan was chairman, Michael Levey was Director and plans were being made for the development of the old bomb site next door. In 1979, when he was a Trustee, he had done an exhibition in a series called ‘The Artist’s Eye’ in which he had wanted to cover the room with bright floral Indian cotton. He installed Tiepolo’s great ceiling painting of An Allegory with Venus and Time on the ceiling, alongside the fragments of Manet’s Execution of Maximilian I. Not only did he love paintings, but he also enjoyed art world gossip. Before he was a Trustee of the National Gallery, he had been a Trustee of the Tate Gallery in the early 1970s, when Norman Reid was Director.
He never talked about his family and I note that he leaves out all reference to them in his entry in Who’s Who. I assume that this is because he did not in any way want to be associated with his famous Hodgkin forebears, including Thomas Hodgkin who gave his name to Hodgkin’s disease, or his cousins, Sir Alan Hodgkin, the great scientist who was Master of Trinity, and Dorothy Hodgkin, who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. He also leaves out the fact that he went to school at Eton. He ran away, was stopped by a policeman who asked him what he was doing, and was told that he wanted to be an artist. But he was certainly influenced by the art master, Wilfrid Blunt, Anthony Blunt’s polymathic older brother, who was able to borrow works from the Royal Collection and introduced him to the study of Indian painting, in which Howard became a great expert. He then went to Bryanston, also left out of his entry, where he must have met Terence Conran and was taught art by Charles Handley-Read, an expert on the Victorian architect, William Burges. He ran away from Bryanston as well.
I always had the impression that he had a long, relatively conventional period in his life after being a student at the Bath Academy of Art in Corsham, where he taught during the 1950s, and met his wife, Julia. He lived in Hammersmith, then Addison Gardens in Kensington, and worked very slowly on canvases which were exhibited during the 1960s at the Arthur Tooth Gallery and by Kasmin. Edward Lucie-Smith wrote in the first catalogue of his work that it ‘has none of the drabness which is too frequently associated by modern artists with pretension to intellect’. This is a good assessment of his strengths as a colourist, without any of the inhibition of the Euston Road School, the tradition in which he had been trained.
It was only in the 1970s that his career really took off, when his paintings were shown at the Oxford Museum of Modern Art when Nicholas Serota was Director, he held a Fellowship at Brasenose College, Oxford, an exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery, and split up from his wife, moving to a flat near the British Museum. Later in his life, he felt that it was a good thing not to have been successful too early, but remembered that ‘there were many bitter moments to live through when it was so long before anybody seemed to want to look at my pictures at all’.
During the 1980s, he became famous. He told Edward Lucie-Smith in an interview for Radio 3 that ‘I know in my case that my work is entirely sustained by experiences of one sort or another. Somebody once said, “well, you must have to live like a novelist to paint pictures like this”. Which is true’. He was included in The New Spirit of Painting, held at the Royal Academy in 1981, but was contemptuous of what he regarded as the revival of history painting — ‘enormous subject pictures which, as physical objects, were often produced in the most perfunctory manner’. He represented Britain in the Venice Biennale and was awarded the second Turner Prize in 1985 in the days when the Turner Prize was not given to a young Turk, but for a lifetime achievement.
By the time I got to know him after the turn of the millennium, he was already a Grand Old Man of the art world and occasionally frail; but he was also funny, warm, wry, and deeply sympathetic. He lived with his partner, Antony Peattie, in a converted dairy nearly opposite the British Museum and we used to have dinner with them upstairs in which the discussion was about literature, music and the art world, but not really about contemporary art from which he always felt somewhat detached, existing in a world of pure colour, at least as interested in Indian art and his collection as he was in the work of other painters. They had a house also in Normandy, which is extraordinarily atmospheric, with large open rooms painted like a Hodgkin. But I never ever saw him paint. He painted in a studio in the garden when he was in Normandy and was probably deliberately secretive about his working practice, retreating to his studio and only emerging for a very delicious lunch.
In recent years we saw him at lunches held in the huge day-lit room off Museum Street, where the pictures for an exhibition were lined up face to the wall, so that we couldn’t see them while eating. There was a ritual after lunch when they would be turned one-by-one so that one could admire them. His output remained prodigious, done presumably at speed, but with an instinct for colour honed by long experience, acute visual sensitivity, a degree of sensuality, and a powerful awareness of the ways in which brushstrokes can activate association and memory.
What will his position be in the canon of modern art ? I view him as an aesthete and a colourist, in the tradition of Matisse. He is not easy to categorise because although in the 1960s he knew lots of painters and was influenced by what was described as a ‘tidal wave’ of Abstract Expressionism in the late 1950s, including exhibitions of Jackson Pollock and Rothko at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, later in life he stood rather aloof from the contemporary art world. He much preferred the company of writers, including Bruce Chatwin, James Fenton and Julian Barnes. I assume that he will always be regarded as a great painter, as long as people appreciate the idea of pure form. But what I will remember best about him was the way that while telling a story about his life or childhood, his face would suddenly crumple into tears.