Howard Hodgkin: The Art of Collecting, by Antony Peattie

Howard Hodgkin: The Art of Collecting


Collecting ran in Howard Hodgkin’s family: he was named after an ancestor, Luke Howard, who was the first man to identify and name cloud forms (Essay on the Modification of Clouds, 1803). Howard’s great-grandparents, John Eliot Hodgkin, and his wife Edith filled their house with English ceramic tiles, and published Examples of Early English Pottery, Named, Dated, and Inscribed in 1891. John Eliot inventoried his other collections in three volumes in 1900 as Rariora. It covers ‘things wondrous rare and strange’, including: papal indulgences; 3,500 papers relating to the transvestite Chevalier d’Éon; incunabula; bearded women; macaronis; medals; mezzotints; 182 engravings of firework displays; 10 specimens of salt-glaze bear-jugs, etc, etc. (Howard owned one example, Lot 300).

Howard once said that he first encountered the word antique in a comic, at the age of seven, when he had been evacuated to America during World War II: Minnie Mouse was on the phone talking about the footstool she had just bought. He assumed the word was pronounced ‘Antiqueue’. He had an insatiable curiosity about the world, art and culture. As a child he consumed whole volumes of the Illustrated London News and prided himself on his ‘general knowledge’. He taught me the meaning, the indispensable meaning of the word ‘bobèche’ (drip-pan). On Long Island he stayed for some time with Betty Babcock, an Esso heiress, addicted to foxhunting and collecting antiques. In the Depression she had stopped at a gas station and noticed that the owner’s interior included a fine set of Federal period panelling. Betty bought it, in exchange for a new fridge.

As a would-be artist (who had to wait until he was thirty to see his first solo exhibition) and a part-time art teacher, trading in antiques supplemented Howard’s inadequate salary: it furnished him with funds to buy a washing machine or take the family on holiday. He specialised in frames, hitchhiking with them from Bath to London, as he never learned to drive. He loved mirrors whose glass was so old that you could not see your reflection. He found a gilt bronze urn that had once decorated Carlton House. Visitors to his family house in Addison Gardens remember seeing a magnificent black stone calligraphic relief, the dedication to a West Bengal mosque, dated AH 905/7 July 1500. It may have belonged to Thomas Hope of Deepdene. He sold it through his friend the dealer Terence McInerney to the Met in New York (1981.320). An exquisite, inlaid early 17th century Gujarati qalamdan or writing desk, made for the Ottoman market, was bought by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (82. 114). Its calligraphy declares, ‘When opened I am like a hidden treasure / Which gives continuous pleasure to its owner.’ (Joseph M. Dye III, The Arts of India, 2001, p.440). The four Persian miniatures Howard found, pages from the Mughal Dastan-i-Masih, or Life of Christ, c.1601-5, are now in major museums all over the world. He said they bought him the house at Long Dean, Wiltshire, where he lived 1966-1977.

There was delight in the orphan: finding some misrecognised piece, restoring it to its rightful primary place. He once bought an early 19th century mahogany teapot, which stood on four tiny lion’s paw feet. Holes had been drilled through the faces above them. Nobody knew what the feet were. Howard had them photographed and the images enlarged. They are now identified as late Roman ivory casket fittings. He gave them to the British Museum, in memory of his father, Eliot Hodgkin, the gardener, (not his cousin the homonymous painter in tempera, who was also an avid collector of French art) (BM 1984,1201.3).

Howard was drawn to the exceptional, the occasion when a standard formula gives way to something different and alive. This was the principle behind his great collection of Indian paintings and drawings, but also prevailed elsewhere: marble busts generally flatter the patrons who commission them. The Regency husband and wife [Lot 14] wear togas to indicate their position in society but have the confidence to be portrayed as they were, formidably ugly. And chairs: Howard never turned a good chair down; there was always room for more. He believed in what he called ‘Costume jewellery for the home’: objects with little apparent, practical use that excited the eye in unexpected ways, such as the grotesque Italian brackets, enormous wooden salmon, ceremonial Indian parasol, marble slab inlaid with semi-precious stones, multiple copies of the same (unread) work, Tommy and Grizel by J.M. Barrie, bound in two colours, or the decorated ostrich egg. His equally passionate and abiding aversions included folk art – fish on legs, in India or elsewhere – and ghoulish attempts to revive the art of the past: “The tradition has not died!” Yes, it has. And, in England, treen, which he dismissed, citing a friend who called it latrine. Catalogues from the auction house whales (Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Bonhams) thudded onto the doormat, accompanied by smaller fry (Dreweatt and Bloomsbury; Woolley and Wallis in Salisbury; Gorringe’s of Lewes; Wilkinson’s in Doncaster; Lyon and Turnbull in Edinburgh; Ader, Piasa, Daguerre, Eve in Paris; Bassenge in Berlin). Some went straight into the bag for the nearby Oxfam bookshop, (Watches, Contemporary Middle Eastern Art and Important Jewels). Others headed for the bedside table, where a tape measure waited to decode those misleading full-page photos, where the photographer has got far too close…


He marked auction catalogues with an MH for ‘must have’ when he wanted something really badly. Howard’s technique in auctions was bold rather than subtle. If he attended in person he would hold up a pencil to signify he was continuing to bid. He tended not to bring it down until he’d won the lot. He often paid ‘too much’. Bargains, he explained, are a snare and a delusion. ‘It’s all grist to the mill’, Howard insisted, meaning that in some way, shopping – ‘Collecting is ultimately, shopping’, he insisted in 2011 – fed his work: work was always a priority; the things that he bought were in some way necessary. Can any connections be drawn? Of course there was decorative art from India and Islamic cultures: he loved the voluptuous curves of hookah bases and the patterns of inlaid metals, called Bidri. An Mughal textile surfaces in the background to his prints Bleeding [Lot 162]and Mourning from 1982, also in Moonlight (1980). He was fascinated by collage, inlaid items and surface patterns of all kinds; mosaics, renaissance pietra dura, Cosmati, scagliola, cuerda seca, cloisonné and marquetry. It inspired him in 1992, when he designed the giant mural for the British Council building in New Delhi, featuring the shadows cast by a Banyan tree and executed in black Cuddappah stone and white Makrana marble. The maquette is Lot 322.


His appreciation for calligraphy relied on not understanding what the words said: he explained, that meant he could evaluate it entirely on the basis of style and quality. Fragments were more potent than entire panels, because they freed the imagination. That also held true for his collection of Indian paintings and drawings. He avoided making a collection based on narrative, topography or period: he wanted masterpieces, irrespective of where or when they were produced. I learned not to ask, why is the monkey flying through the air? Or, why does the cow lift a hoof towards the prince? Such concerns distracted from the only issue that mattered, quality. He was a passionate advocate of Indian drawing, done not with a pencil, but with the fine tip of a camel or squirrel-hair brush, dipped in ink. When the critic Brian Sewell dismissed the entire corpus of Indian drawing, Howard rebuked him publicly at a Dorchester dinner for Gilbert and George. But, as he once said: “Masterpieces are impossible to live with. They demand too much attention.”So he did not shy away from buying works that were easier to live with. He could never resist an elephant. He wrote in 1983: “good Indian drawings of elephants are more frequently encountered than drawings of any other subject… Perhaps the shifting volume and surface, the loose skin and the obvious structure inside it, the colossal weight which can defy gravity with a leap in the air then sink to the ground in a heap like a mountain, were to the Indian artist what the changing forms and moods of the human body are supposed to have been to the Post-Renaissance European artist.” That is from the preface to the catalogue for his 1983 exhibition Indian Drawing at the Hayward Gallery. Howard co-curated that with Terence McInerney, who recently suggested to me that Howard may have identified with elephants, particularly when they run amok or fight back, as they often do in the works that he favoured.


Reading also provided a necessary distraction; Howard read voraciously, with the zeal of an auto-didact. His devotion to the works of Agatha Christie began early: in 1946, shortly after the end of the war, his influential ‘cousin’ Marjorie Fry, Roger Fry’s sister, arranged for him to stay three weeks with a family in France, to improve his French. He hid Agatha Christie in his luggage and found it a great resource. The father, Pierre Artur, had been director of the newspaper Ouest-Éclair, 1940-1944 (later renamed Ouest-France). At the Liberation he had been charged with collaborating and was sentenced to 10 years of ‘indignité nationale’. Howard remembers a governess taking a fancy to him and expressing it by giving him a heavy and elaborate bronze cross to wear round his neck. He painted the room of one of the daughters, who wrote to him afterwards, ‘Le soleil roule, roule, roule!’ All through his life he resorted to re-reading Agatha Christie in order to free his mind, so that he could work on paintings in his head. He liked to begin reading at the book’s end and then work his way back to the start. (See Lot 396).


Like his great-grandfather, Howard loved prints, mezzotints, engravings etc, delighted to find that he could own work by Breughel, Hogarth, Piranesi, William Blake and Poussin. Poussin was a particular hero, his model for a classical artist. His first art master Wilfrid Blunt introduced him to (and wrote the book) on The Art of Botanical Illustration (1951), while his mother Katherine Hodgkin, contributed studies of flowers to the collection of the Royal Horticultural Society at Kew.

He loved sculpture of all kinds, particularly of the human head, but had a special affinity for reliefs, in wood, in marble and in engravings, fascinated by the way a panel surface can be worked, so that it conjures up major depth from almost nothing. So portraits joined Agonies in the Garden, allegorical figures and angels.

Reliefs may shine light on his analogous practice as an artist. Howard insisted his paintings were objects; he incorporated the frames around his panels, painting over them, so that they belonged to the work. On at least three occasions, he reused the frame around an Iznik tile for his own work. I bought Howard an Iznik tile inlaid into a table, as a present, at an auction in Montrose, Angus, Scotland [Lot 393]. When it arrived it was obvious that the tile was new: ‘Made in Florence’, it said on the back… Howard saved my embarrassment by converting its frame into a support for a painting, Dirty Window, 2014-2015.


He paid way over the odds for a magnificent Iznik tile at auction [Lot 234]. Its frame served as the base for My Only Sunshine, 2014-2015. It’s perhaps worth saying that this recycling yielded Howard moral, rather than fiscal satisfaction.


Working on wood, he almost always left passages at the edges unpainted, with gouge marks, bruises, damage visible, so that the viewer would be reminded of the ‘thingness’ of the work. Technology helped: Jack Shirreff, his printer in Wiltshire, taught him to use carborundum in his print-making: a heap of silicon carbide grit made a mountain on the plate, so that, when paper was pressed over it, a valley was created, adding remarkable 3D depth and texture to the prints – see, for example, the intaglio prints, such as the Palm series, Indian Tree, Moroccan Door, the Venice series, Frost and Tears, Idle Tears. This marked out a common interest for Howard and his near contemporaries, Stephen Buckley and Keith Milow, who also explore the area where sculpture meets painting.

Howard insisted his paintings were hung flat on the wall, using mirror plates. He hated seeing them leaning against a vertical surface, as that destroyed the appeal of transparency: the illusion that the surface can act like a window. He ensured that, when you entered his houses (in London, Wiltshire and France), you could see from the front door right through and out to the other side of the building.

His favourite food was jelly.

He was fascinated by ornament: how could an abstract pattern, carved on an ivory tusk, for example, in stained glass or woven into a carpet exert such a strong intellectual/emotional hold over the viewer, thanks to the harmonies of its arabesques? He paid special attention to tapestries, convinced that they had languished in fashion’s shadows for too long.

He collected Oriental tiles from all periods, Mamluk and Kashan to Damascus, which were almost always fragments from a larger pattern. Peter Malone and Ceri House made it possible to hang them flat on the wall, like his own work and as their makers had intended them to be seen, rather than leaning haphazardly along a mantelpiece. Characteristically, Ilkhanid Persian tiles of the 13th century feature 3D calligraphy, while Iznik tiles exult in raised Armenian red bole.

Flags fascinated him, as colour and pattern become the vehicle for identity, charged with immense, intense meaning. They appear in his work, in his paintings Flag and In a French Restaurant and in the print, Put Out More Flags [Lot 310]. The title refers to Evelyn Waugh’s sixth novel, of 1942, which alludes to Lin Yutang’s The Importance of Living, 1937: “A man getting drunk at a farewell party should strike a musical tone, in order to strengthen the spirit… and a drunk military man should order gallons and put out more flags in order to increase his military splendour.”


“I have absolutely no desire to collect my own work,” Howard once said, “but do have what with age seems an almost unquenchable thirst for acquiring other things to look at”. He himself kept back only two of his own paintings, Travelling [Lot 317] and Bedroom [Lot 69] that appeared in his first exhibition at the ICA in 1962, but were never sold.


Having been short of money through much of his early adult life, when his parents were unwilling to support his ambition to be an artist, Howard appreciated what it can do. He wanted to give away considerable sums to people who needed it. He did not save the money he earned, however. He spent it on objects, on ‘Must Haves’. This sale will enable his executors to fulfill his wishes.


Howard Hodgkin’s partner since 1984, Antony Peattie was co-editor of The New Kobbé’s Opera Book, 1997. His new work, The Private Life of Lord Byron, will be published by Unbound in 2018. First published in ‘Howard Hodgkin: Portrait of the Artist’, Sotheby’s auction catalogue, London, 24 October 2017, a sale of the personal collection of the artist. It is also reproduced on the Sotheby’s website