About My Collection, by Howard Hodgkin

Asian Art, 1991

About My Collection

My collection really began when Wilfrid Blunt, my art master during the brief year I studied at Eton (1946), arranged two exhibitions at school. One was the stock of an oriental bookseller called Luzac in Great Russell Street, which he borrowed, complete with price lists (consisting mostly of Mughal pictures). It made me realise that, even though the prices seemed huge to a schoolboy, such pictures could be bought. Among the Luzac paintings there was one I wanted to own – it cost all of five pounds, but Wilfrid Blunt very sensibly advised me that I could spend my money better on something else. He didn’t think any of the pictures were really worth buying.

The other, far more remarkable show consisted of selections from the Royal Collections, as Blunt had some kind of inside track with the royal librarian at Windsor Castle nearby. The exhibition included Mansur’s Chameleon (ca. 1600), one of the most extraordinary of all paintings from the Mughal dynasty (1526-1858). Blunt showed me illustrated Mughal manuscripts from the Royal Collection, which could only be viewed one opening at a time. He also let me see his own private collection of Indian and Persian paintings, which later as an art student I borrowed to make an exhibition. It was of mixed quality but again demonstrated that it was possible to buy Indian pictures – they were not something that simply existed on the walls of a museum. Wilfrid didn’t speak much about Indian paintings – he didn’t know much about them. So often when people talk about other people they talk about themselves. Wilfrid once commented about the Sitwells that they were marvellous at pointing you in different directions but what they said was usually a tissue of lies. He wasn’t really creative enough to tell me any lies, but he was remarkably inaccurate. He loved collecting, and he wanted his pupils to become collectors, too: “If you enjoy art, there’s nothing like having a bit of art at home.”

For reasons I have often been asked about, but can’t remember, I decided that I wanted to collect Indian paintings. I must have been about fourteen years old. To fund my first purchase, I went to the races, having got an advance on future payments, and put all my pocket money on two horses. I lost it.

I have no recollection of how I paid for it but I bought the painting all the same. It wasn’t a very good picture, and it didn’t remain in my collection for long – I soon exchanged it for something else. But I remember it was a hybrid, seventeenth-century “Indo-Persian” picture from Aurangabad, India –very brightly colored, very pretty, of people sitting around in a garden, drinking wine and lolling about in fanciful positions. It was not a very good picture, but I suppose a reasonably respectable picture for a beginner.

My chronological memory is poor, but I remember a few significant moments. The next one was when I bought, in a shop quite near the Victoria and Albert Museum, a portrait of Farrukh Siyar, the Mughal emperor (reigned A.D. 713-19). It was a boring standing portrait and had little to recommend it, apart from the fact that it was in perfect condition, was on a contemporaneous album leaf, and had very pretty borders. I immediately carried it to the Indian section of the Victoria and Albert Museum. There I met Robert Skelton, then an assistant keeper, who shortly afterwards, and as a result of my taking this picture to show him, became a lifelong friend. He told me it bore the seal of Sir Elijah Impey, one of the important legal officers of the East India Company. I briefly flirted with the idea that a grand provenance, or at least a good one, makes a picture slightly better – it never does. But through meeting Robert Skelton, I eventually had the most memorable encounter of my collecting life.

Some years later, in 1959, I took Skelton a clutch of drawings. I had become very interested in Indian drawings partly because they were cheap and nobody else at the time seemed to care much about them. Sitting in Robert’s office was a slightly plump, pink man, whose name, Cary Welch, meant nothing to me. Rather to my dismay, he looked through my collection of drawings and said, “Well, beta minus” and grunted and then picked one out and said, “Alpha.” I thought this was rather presumptuous, but I also liked that one best myself. His was a generous comment because as time went on I realised it wasn’t terribly good. It was a Basohli portrait drawing of what was then thought to be the right period. Robert immediately suggested the three of us go to lunch, which seemed to be hosted by Mr Welch. I have very little memory of the lunch, except that Cary Welch did all the talking.

When Robert had to go back to the museum and continue a much-shortened day, Cary insisted on taking me home in a taxi. He told me he had been rich since the age of twenty-one. His enthusiasm and charm were such that I didn’t think he was much older than that then, though he must have been in his early thirties. We arrived at his small, rented mews house, filled with remarkably ugly Victorian furniture belonging to the landlord.But there were two or three large Indian paintings of breathtaking quality hanging on the walls. He introduced me to his wife and then lifted an enormous Harrod’s dress box onto the table. It was filled with seventeenth- and eighteenth century paintings from different Rajput kingdoms, unmounted, in heaps, as I was later to see them in India. After I had been there several hours, I shyly suggested that I should ring home. He said, “By all means; ask whomever you like to join us for dinner.”

The dinner was very late and followed by a slide show, which was rather awkward because the only way you could look at the slides was to hold them up against the side of the lampshade. I remember going home at midnight, realising I had found the kind of new friend that one makes very rarely in a lifetime, and I was filled with a renewed lust to buy pictures.

After he moved away from London, Cary Welch frequently came to stay with me and my family. I never quite got used to his taking down whatever pictures I happened to have hanging up at the time and replacing them with his own most recent purchases, but it was very good training for me. At the same time he invariably ignored anything I had recently bought and wanted to show him. The more remarkable it was, the more he wished to pretend it wasn’t there – not that he need have worried, because at that time he was acquiring masterpieces all over the world. I am now very grateful to him for this generous habit of replacing my pictures with his own; they were infinitely better than mine, and I learned a lot from looking at these great paintings closely. Cary talked incessantly about his pictures. I couldn’t have had a better teacher. Though Cary is a scholar as well as a connoisseur, ultimately he will be remembered as the Bernard Berenson of Indian art and for his great collection.

It’s hard to think of another collection made on such purely visual grounds. So many collections of Indian painting are developed on an art historical or even a topographical basis. Though sometimes fascinated by iconography, Cary has said again and again, “What you’ve got to buy is what gives you the biggest art buzz.” I also thought that it was art (whatever that is), rather more than anything else, which appealed to me in Indian painting.

I started buying Indian pictures wherever I could. Gradually, people also began to bring them to me, and I acquired them in New York or wherever I happened to be. My collection didn’t assume any form of its own until I began to see that the best was the enemy of the good. This was perhaps something I had seen when looking at Cary Welch’s collection. Like many great collectors, he had vast accumulations of colour slides, things that have never appealed to me. I find them obnoxious and hard to look at, but it meant that sitting in Robert Skelton’s sitting room one could look at a large number of pictures quickly and in detail and gradually acquire some sense of quality about a given school or the work of a particular artist.

It didn’t take me long to move from buying whatever I could that I quite liked to becoming very critical about what I already had. My collection, now about sixty paintings and drawings, at times has been even smaller – at one point it was down to about half its current size. Terence McInerney, a postgraduate student taught by Cary Welch who then became a dealer in Indian pictures, has over the last ten years become a great friend. Usually, without giving very specific advice, he has persuaded me that it was still possible to acquire good pictures. Without his help and encouragement my collection would be even smaller.

In 1960 I bought a page from the Hamzanama (Story of Hamza), which I later saw reproduced in Painting in India by Douglas Barrett and Basil Gray (1963) when I had absolutely no money at all. I mentioned this to my late friend Bruce Chatwin, who was then working at Sotheby’s. Bruce knew a dealer who knew the doctor of the woman in Switzerland who owned the picture. Bruce suggested that he could at least find out whether she would be interested in selling the picture and if so for how much. Eventually, entirely due to his intervention, I was able to buy the picture. I didn’t have enough money to fly to Switzerland, so it was sent to me. And very disappointing it was. Though it was reproduced in glorious technicolor in the book, in reality it looked rather gray. After a few years, however, I acclimatized myself to this masterpiece, which I now know is one of my best pictures. To pay for it I had to sell what was then almost my entire collection. I can’t remember the exact number of pictures, but it must have been about sixty. Most were not very good and went for small sums of money to people I knew. Even now if I had to choose one picture from my collection, this would be it. It seemed to me to contain everything that I then loved in Indian painting, such as its (comparatively) huge scale, its architectural composition, and its total description of another world. But as a masterpiece it caused problems – masterpieces always do. I am a great believer in comparing one picture with another, and the presence of this picture could be quite destructive to the other. At home there was a mantelpiece opposite my bed on which I would put Indian pictures side by side. I would lie in bed, propped up on pillows at a comfortable angle, looking from side to side, left to right and back again, for hours and hours. During the time when most people read books I would just lie there thinking, “Is this one better than that one? No, it’s not better than that one, take it away.”

For a long time I thought I would probably never buy another picture, but eventually I got lucky and one or two other masterpieces came my way together with pictures that, though not masterpieces, I thought good enough. I became more and more skilful at making excuses for the ones that were slightly halt or lame. And I often went to quite ridiculous lengths to acquire things.

Disconcertingly, a collection begins to have a life of its own and to make demands on its owner that seem both impersonal and peremptory. For the most part it’s really quite easy to resist the innocent charms of gap filling. But when a picture somehow demands to be bought (at whatever price) because it appears to be a great work of art of a kind not otherwise represented in the collection, it means trouble. I long wanted marvellous Basohli pictures, and eventually got some good ones. Early Mughal pictures were seemingly impossible to come by, and then by chance I managed to acquire the fragmentary painting on cloth A Prince Riding on an Elephant in Procession, but my favourite and longest lasting enthusiasm has been for Kota painting.

Elephants are heavy animals but are depicted in painting from Kota as capable of such wild movement that they appear almost weightless – and how mysteriously they seem to haunt the rather conventional landscape. In one whole group of paintings and drawings elephants are being excited by fireworks. This possibly rather unpleasant spectacle did touch a nerve in Kota artists. Perhaps they were able to produce such extraordinary images of elephants in motion as a result of watching these displays. As a collector, my enthusiasm for these Kota pictures became my downfall – my Waterloo. The acquisition of Maharao Durjan Sal and Shri Brijnathji Hunting Tigers and Wild Buffalo was such a traumatic event in my life as a collector that I felt I could go no further. It’s the largest, most expensive picture I have ever bought – and the only one for which I have exchanged one of my paintings. This great, though fragmentary, picture finally enabled me to escape from the almost nagging lust that often keeps collectors in a slightly restless and unfulfilled condition for the rest of their lives.

At the moment, the prospect of another such purchase of equal scale, importance, and cost is unthinkable. So I am probably safe – and the exhibition of my collection at the Sackler Gallery is meant to celebrate the end of an obsession that has lasted more than forty years. Looking at the collection now, I realize that it has been making its demands for longer than I thought. Like Cary Welch, I had always been in search of art, but nobody can define that. For an artist there are elements of scale, form, and color that are beyond verbal description. In Indian painting I have found much that for me could be found nowhere else, but I cannot tell you what – I can only metaphorically wave my arms at the pictures – and say look!