The NPG could well have followed pocket cartoonist Osbert Lancaster’s lead when he called his book of memoirs All Done from Memory, as Sir Howard only used his memory when starting a painting. Some poorly-informed visitors may be baffled by the nature of the paintings on display, and wonder what these ‘abstracts’ are doing in a gallery devoted purely to portraiture. One has to pose the question, if one instinctively thought that they were abstract paintings, how was one to know that they were, in fact, portraits, if it were not for captions and a sneaky look at the catalogue? We are told that there are clues in the paintings as to who the sitters are, but without a gentle nudge or crib-sheet, it is quite challenging to discern who is who and what is what. But does this matter? When the pictures on show are such a vibrant and vivacious display of colour, texture and bravura brushmanship, no, it does not matter a jot. What was in Howard’s mind when he started a painting, is a matter between him, his memory and his emotional involvement with the subject. How it ends up, with many re-visits to the canvas and numerous revisions and overpainting, is up to us, the viewer. To say that he was a slow worker, would be like saying that he painted at the speed of a koala bear, but without the same sense of urgency, sometimes spending up to ten years on a painting. The end result is often a joy and a delight, no matter how he arrived there. Sadly, Sir Howard died at the beginning of March, after flying back from one of his favourite locations, Mumbai in India. He loved the nature and colours of India, and had a large collection of Mogul-derived Pahari paintings and miniatures from the Himalayas, and was particularly partial to elephants.
There is a thin line, or, in his case, a broad brush-stroke, between abstraction and representation, and many of the titles of his paintings are designed to confound and tease. Take A Small Thing but My Own, an absolute gem of radiancy within a black frame, and one of the best works in the exhibition, a mere 44.5cm x 53.5cm. It comes from the title of book of essays by the seventeenth century poet Abraham Cowley, but that may have been selected merely to confuse the viewer. He is often quoted as saying, ‘I paint representational pictures of emotional situations’, and there is no way of knowing what emotional experience he was trying to capture, although Waking up in Naples and Bed in Venice are more explicit, the latter depicting a naked figure in white, rumpled sheets at the 14th century five-star Danieli Hotel in 1984, which celebrated his long-term relationship with the musicologist Antony Peattie. It was also the year he represented Britain at the XLI Biennale, so the British Council really must have pushed la barca out. His influences include Turner, Seurat, Degas, Vuillard, Ivon Hitchens, Peter Lanyon, and, most significantly, Matisse, whose use of coloration and application of paint can be seen in many works. Interior with Figures is redolent of Matisse’s The Piano Lesson or Vuillard’s Green Interior, with two nude figures lying in the foreground and a cloud of post-coital cigarette smoke rising in the background.
His last painting was done with this exhibition in mind and is a self-portrait called Portrait of the Artist Listening to Music. It took him five years to complete, the same time it took to put this show together. Apparently, he played two pieces of music while he was painting it: The Last Time I Saw Paris by Jerome Kern, sung by Noël Coward, and the theme tune from Carol Reed’s film The Third Man, composed and performed by the Austrian zither-player Anton Karas Five incessant years of either tune would surely send one up the wall? He was wheelchair-bound during his last years, and had to be lifted up to the 189cm x 263cm oil on wood picture to finish it, using a long-handled brush and his open palms. It is no co-incidence that the Kern song is all about looking back and re-living the past, which is exactly the act of remembrance Hodgkin was trying to achieve in this powerful, vigorous and lyrical painting, surprisingly full of life. Other portraits include those of his friends and patrons including David Hockney, seen standing like a yellow phallus in his pool in LA, Patrick Caulfield, R B Kitaj, Joe Tilson and his wife, Robyn Denny and his wife, Stephen Buckley, Gillian Wise and Anthony Hill, a Constructionist painter, whose interest in mathematics led him to be made a visiting research associate in the Department of Mathematics at UCL. Whether one sees the paintings as portraits or abstracts, this is the most striking, poetic, sumptuous and colourful exhibition in London.