'Where seldom is heard a discouraging word' by Sir Howard Hodgkin

HOWARD HODGKIN: No sprinkles, no flake.

Signalling the end of an era, the moment when I read the sad news about the recent death of one of Britain’s most successful 20th century artists Sir Howard Hodgkin.

Living 84 years from august 1932 until march 2017 his contribution to the world of art is enormous. Born in Hammersmith, London, he Studied at Camberwell Art School and later Bath Academy of Art and shared the world with artists like Gillian Ayres, Anthony Caro, Patrick Caulfield and Ben Nicholson among others with whom he exhibited at the Hayward Gallery in 1980.

His paintings were often about experiences, sensual and exciting, and his use of paint was lavish and seductive.

Although he might have been humble even professing to hate painting, he didn’t fall short in the good fortune of his birth, both coming from an immensely creative family and then fortuitously ending up with an address within a stone’s throw of the British museum in the iconic postcode of Bloomsbury.

This brings me to the second reason for writing this. The first to pay respects to a great talent of course, but also to talk about how chance encounters, the people we meet and are taught by and events we are affected by shape the rest of our life, and have lasting ripples on the development of our artwork not only then but sometimes many years in the future.

For back in 1993 I happened to be an art student at Winchester School of Art. This purpose built 60’s glass edifice had a certain joyfulness about it but also had something else. It was steeped in a painting tradition that was considered by some to be a bit yesterday. A huge change in emphasis was occurring in art schools all over the country, and there was a distinct lack of paint!

However alive and kicking here were groundworks laid by Gillian Ayres, Patrick Heron, Vanessa Jackson and Howard Hodgkin amongst others paving the way for the development and expansion of a future generation of painters.

Nearing the end of our course, we were treated to a lecture by Howard Hodgkin which not surprisingly was standing room only and even spilled out along the corridors. After which came the opportunity to have our work critiqued by the man himself.

On reading of his passing it sparked this memory.  I then happened to come across some notes I made in an old sketchbook. Joining him was Sasha Craddock (artist, Curator and art critic for the Guardian and another Bloomsbury resident) as well as the usual hard-nails. I rather flippantly referred to the firing squad in my notes as the Sasha and Howard show! As any 21 year old might. But having a critique of your work or being criticised by people you respect, may sound harsh to people who have no connection to the art world but it’s not, it’s a rite of passage and I really did want to know what they thought.

The main thrust of discussion centred around photographs screen printed behind layers of scraped paint. I nervously spout on about my preoccupation with chaos and order and how the images of construction are a metaphor for this. Well I wasn’t exactly shot down in flames however but what Howard had to say gave me food for thought. His opinion was that if the metaphor is a construction site then the whole idea is wrong and that far from being one of chaos and order it was simply one of order. Or else the metaphor is wrong.

That wasn’t the end. I was encouraged to make more of the photos, using them to make some kind of pictorial space. Hodgkin’s ability to create depth with just a few purposeful swipes of an enormous brush is well known. Something else was niggling him though. There was disharmony. Is this bad or good? Are they really about disharmony? Or (and here’s the hammer blow) are they just not working? Ouch!

And so there it was. Did I learn from this? Did it change the way I paint? Do I remember these wise words whenever I have a painting crisis? Yes, and then again no. In fact, it is fair to say it did ask more questions than it answered, which is considered by some to be the point. It is the subject of a discourse I have with myself that has spanned the years and the same questions keep rearing their ugly head.

About a year ago, someone asked me ‘how do I choose which photographs to use?’ A question I often ask myself, I answered lazily ‘the choice is arbitrary’ I mean arbitrary!! What was I thinking? Brushing it under the carpet more like. Excusing the lack of purpose and care. What a wonderful get out clause that word is. I can’t fool myself though, it does mean something. I just don’t know what. I do know however that they are not just a metaphor.

Hodgkin’s paintings are a triumph of elegance. Focused, direct and honest. What can I learn from that? That I am guilty of simply trying to include too much in one painting, a weakness of mine. Throwing the dog in. Sprinkles and a flake please.

If you go to Southport there are ice cream shops that offer choice beyond your wildest dreams, which is ok because in the context of ice cream, is it possible to go over the top? I think not.

Clarity of purpose and idea is surely essential if one attempts to create a conceptual work of art, otherwise it is polluted and confusing. Unlike the instant gratification of a face full of Mr Whippy, a work of art takes a little bit more digestion.

Whilst writing this I notice a Hodgkin influence in the work of one of the Silver Star Gallery’s artist’s work. Dan Pearce, his urban portraits of icons spill out of the canvas and over the frame, making them one and the same, a habit Hodgkin is famed for.

Red Bermudas by Sir Howard Hodgkin

Red Bermudas by Sir Howard Hodgkin

Marilyn vs Audrey by Dan Pearce

Marilyn vs Audrey by Dan Pearce

Just before he died Hodgkin was offered a major show in the National Portrait Gallery, the staff at the gallery only found out about his death half an hour before they were due to hang the exhibition.

Howard Hodgkin: Absent Friends runs from 23 March to 18 June at the National Portrait gallery, London

“In the saddest but most wonderful possible way, it completes the story,”  “We’ve got the very first painting that he ever made, at 17, and the last painting he made, and so the entire career is now framed.” Paul Moorhouse, curator


I also found myself reading about Sasha Craddock’s Georgian Bloomsbury address and all its’ artist credentials. In the article by the independent she was described as having been Howard Hodgkin’s charlady. What’s that all about? Probably a whole other story.

Lucy Elizabeth Jones 02/04/2017