On Collecting Indian Paintings, by Howard Hodgkin

The Ashmolean, No. 23, Christmas, 1992

On Collecting Indian Paintings
'Sultan Muhammad Adil Shah and Ikhlas Khan riding an Elephant', c. 1645, 32 x 44.5 cm, Gouache with gold on paper

I want to talk first this evening about the history of collecting. I think it’s worth thinking about what collecting actually is. A great collection often seems to be the result of one very rich man going shopping. It isn’t. It is really partly illness, an incurable obsession. It’s partly – sadly in some cases – a desire for future or posthumous glory, perhaps more often for status while the collector is still alive. Also, and of course far more importantly it represents the human desire to get near works of art. At its worst it’s greed, or the desire simply to possess, like a child at a party being given something to take home. But it’s much more than that at its highest. It’s difficult to think immediately of a collection which is sufficiently pure – made by people like Mrs Havemeyer, Gertrude Stein or Nelson Rockefeller for a little while, and so on. There are moments in people’s lives when the desire to possess works of art takes possession of them, and that is of course where – as an almost registered sufferer – I know all about it. But when you go into a museum and see the rather unfortunate result of some very rich man saying that his collection should be kept together and not mixed – as I’m sure the Director of the Museum would wish – with other works of the same kind, spare a thought, or a twinge of sympathy, for the poor man who probably ruined his personal life and spent far too much money, to make something that was his.

So first of all, collecting is the ultimate in possessiveness. Objects probably fare better than people at being at the sharp end of such emotion. They get nurtured and looked after and do not suffer from an obsessive love, unless they’re repainted too much or interfered with. Painters, sculptors and architects throughout history have collected. I’m not knowledgeable enough to go through the whole history of artists as collectors, but it is a very strange thing that something that is so nearly an artistic activity in its own right has attracted and possessed so many artists. Please don’t misunderstand when I name a few of them. We only really know about great artists and so those are the people I have to mention. I’m not for a moment joining myself onto them when I mention the names of people like Degas, Van Dyck, Rembrandt or the great English watercolourist Cotman. (Rembrandt in particular ruined himself by collecting works of art quite as much as by buying works of art for his wife).

The impulse to collect is thus a way of making art your own, but it’s also a way of making art; a collection in the end is a work of art. A collection of extremely expensive French Impressionist pictures, recently bought and put in very grand Louis XV frames with little lights on top of them and very expensive price tags is obviously not a work of art. It’s a work of self-aggrandisement. It’s a way of saying look how rich, or how glamorous I am. But a collection which is made from passion, a collection which will never take no for an answer, when some new, desirable object comes along, is a very different matter. And for an artist it’s a very difficult thing, because at what point do you say: ‘I’m a painter’, or ‘I’m a sculptor’ and not ‘I’m a collector’? How much vanity comes into it? I don’t know. Those of you who are collectors, or are going to be collectors, probably do know; it’s not something that I really like to try and measure, but it is certainly a disease.

I come from a family of collectors, and not very good ones mostly. I say that with pride really because they were so pure. (One thing I’ve forgotten to say is that to be a great collector, you don’t have to collect great objects; and plenty of people who bought a lot of great objects haven’t been great collectors). I have a great-grandfather who was nicknamed ‘Rariora’. He made many different collections, including the first and still the best collection of documentary English pottery, about which he wrote a book which he was very proud of, called Dated Examples of English Earthenware. He collected the papers of the transvestite Chevalier D’Eon. He collected early printed books. His collection was published in a catalogue of three volumes. Among his other collections, particularly noteworthy were his objects called lusus naturae, small coloured stones which, when you looked at them carefully, had accidental pictures. His most celebrated example had a portrait of George IV: when you chopped the stone in half there was this king inside. In spite of the period in which he lived, his collection was more like a Renaissance Wunderkammerthan something from the late nineteenth century.

Nevertheless, his son (my grandfather) and his wife introduced me at a very tender age to collecting. When I was a small child, sent away to boarding school, my grandmother would send me little antique watch keys or even the faces of eighteenth century watches in an envelope, to cheer me up at school. She thought a little bit of collecting would do the trick. I didn’t really understand what was going on at all. As a child I was evacuated to America, and I stayed on Long Island for a while with a family where the mother was a dedicated collector of American antiques. But I didn’t know what the word ‘antique’ was. I remember reading a comic at the age of seven, which was all about Mickey and Minnie Mouse. I was really taken by a picture of Minnie Mouse in her wonderful high-heeled clumpy shoes, holding up in one hand a little stool and in the other a telephone. She was saying: ‘I just bought this great antique footstool’ – I thought, what could this be? So I talked to the woman I was staying with, and she told me that ‘antique’ meant old and precious and admirable. Then I was taken to the museum and I was shown things in glass cases. So I thought ‘antique’ was something inside a glass case. After this I was taken to antique shops and started buying little things, all of which were complete rubbish. But I’m afraid that was when the collecting infection began to take hold.

Later I returned to England and went to school. My art master, Wilfrid Blunt, was rather in the tradition of my great-grandfather, a dilettante collector. He was the brother of the famous, and later sadly notorious, Anthony Blunt and was the complete opposite of him. He knew nothing about a great many things. And he was a wonderful teacher to schoolboys. He had a little glass case in the schoolroom in which every week he would put another object from his collection. After a while I realised he was very proud of these objects, particularly the way fresh-faced young schoolchildren would say: ‘Please Sir, what is that?’Then he would say, in a sort of auctioneer/dealer’s voice of great warmth and fruitiness, ‘Oh, that’s very rare. That’s terribly important. That’s very grand.’ That added another aspect to the kind of objects people collect, which was I think quite important to me.

It was Wilfrid Blunt who first showed me what Indian painting was. He showed me several Indian pictures, and they were not very good. It was some years before I was willing to admit to myself quite how bad they were. But they were very interesting; and there is a lot to be said to coming first to a subject in that way, through objects of poor quality, not least because I could go to a shop and buy something almost as bad, and take it home and look at it and possess it. And so I did. I bought one bad picture and then another bad picture. Gradually I accumulated a lot of bad pictures. When I had accumulated quite a few, I began to realise that a collection was not just a lot of things, not one damn thing after another, like a collection of stamps or cigarette cards. It was something else. I didn’t know quite what, but that was the first stirring that maybe there was more to it than this. I used to look at my pictures with increasing irritation. I remember picking them up and holding them, and sort of shaking them slightly, rather to say, ‘Why aren’t you better?’ This was neither good for them, nor really very helpful.

But eventually I became friends with various other people who collected them. One of these was called Robert Erskine, and he was the sort of collector that has almost disappeared off the face of the earth. He had lots of money for a little while. Money on the whole is not very helpful if you want to make a collection, because I think it can open up too many possibilities: if you can buy anything, that makes it far more difficult to buy something. But Robert was very clever. He had wanted to collect seriously since he was even younger than me. Then one of his relations died at a fortunate age for him, and he suddenly had serious money to spend. And he spent it, as quickly as if he was living a loose life and having luxuries of every kind. Far from it: his luxuries consisted of things like pre-dynastic Egyptian sculpture, Boulle cabinets, bits of Greek pottery. And he was brilliant at it. The reason I say that he’s the kind of collector that’s almost disappeared is that he collected right across the board. His sense of quality was almost infallible. For example, he once bought for a very small amount of money a cardboard box full of shards of an archaic black-figure Greek pot. He spent the next six years of his life sticking them together. Then he realised there were some pieces missing; and he dealer he bought them from said: ‘Oh, yes. I’ve got some pieces from the top of a wardrobe in Lord Elgin’s house. I think they fit your vase.’ They did; and they had the name of the artist. That huge vase is now in the British Museum.

Robert Erskine was the person who put me in touch with a network of ancient Parisian dealers who had their hands on the art market for a long time. The most famous of these was Charles Ratton, alias Uncle Charlie. He was the man who used to sell negro sculptures to Picasso or André Durand, and many of the props you see in Matisse’s rooms, or Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’ rooms, all came from Uncle Charlie. These vague bits of Tuscan furniture were, as it were, early products of Uncle Charlie, who over the years moved up and up in the world. Eventually as an old man he was selling things to the Rockefellers and other people and museums all over the world.

When eventually I sold that great heap of terrible pictures which I could never forgive for being so bad – and this was achieved with immense difficulty, by selling them to unsuspecting friends, or a kind relative who bought one of the larger, more doubtful pictures – it was Uncle Charlie who got the money and who went to Switzerland and brought back the Hamza-nama painting, which is Number 1 in the exhibition catalogue. And it is a great masterpiece. It’s such a relief to be able to say that. The Hamza-nama is perhaps the greatest single achievement of Indian pictorial art apart from the Ajanta caves. The pictures in it vary tremendously in quality, and they’re executed by many different artists. This happens to be a great picture from it. I have seen many other pictures from the series in Vienna and other places. It would be hard to say which page is the best, and I certainly wouldn’t say that of mine, but it is a very good page from that manuscript.

But when I got it, having not had the money to fly to Switzerland and look at it beforehand, I was horrified. It arrived by mail; I had only enough money to pay its fare from Switzerland. I undid the parcel and there was this large, grey and slightly multi-coloured picture; from the side it looked crooked, and it was a mess. Perhaps that was when I began to really understand that condition isn’t all that important, because I grew to love the picture. It was really only very dirty and had been stuck on different pieces of board so it had an uneven surface. Twenty years later it was properly cleaned and flattened, and turned out to be in wonderful condition. It now looks exactly like the coloured reproduction in the Skira book of Indian painting, which had first led me to buy it.

The acquisition of that picture turned me into a real collector; before that I wasn’t even an apprentice collector. But once I owned that picture, Sherman Lee of the Cleveland Museum came to see me. People started treating me with a mixture of contempt and respect which i didn’t entirely understand. And also at that moment, as I have written about, the great Cary Welch came into my life, and then everything hotted up tremendously. He used to come down and see me with all his latest acquisitions. He would take down from the wall any of my own Indian paintings that happened to be hanging, and put up his own instead. He would stay for weeks at a time and I would look at his pictures, because of course I couldn’t look at mine. There was a time when I didn’t dare look at my own pictures, even when I was by myself, in case they were not really good enough. When Cary looked at my pictures, he sometimes remained very silent. It was something like twelve years before I realised that those were the rare occasions when I had got something that he wanted.

I owe Cary Welch an enormous debt: nobody could have been more generous with his knowledge, and far more important, his feelings. Everything that I’ve ever done as a collector has been based ultimately on the strength of feeling. Cary’s definition of what you had to buy was something that gave you a real ‘art zap’, and if it didn’t do that, forget it. That actually is a very high ideal. It may not sound like it, but it is. He, like the rest of us, has often fallen short of it, because you can so easily buy something which you think is interesting or historically important. For Cary, who though he isn’t by temperament a scholar has certainly behaved as one for much of his life, a picture can be ‘very important’ if it represents a missing link or another work by a painter whom you greatly admire. But in the last resort that’s not what really matters, if you don’t get some kind of nervous shock – I call it a shock to the heart, though I think it’s somewhere rather lower down than the heart that this shock takes place. But if you don’t get that, you shouldn’t buy it. I think that applies to museum curators as well as private collectors.

But it is very difficult to stick to that ideal through thick or thin. To keep looking at a picture or an object constantly and asking questions of it is very hard work. I used to teach a lot, and I had a wonderful student who – though I never mentioned Indian painting or collecting to him – became a dealer, because he thought it was so horrible to be an artist. He said to me: ‘Look at you. Who’d want to be like you?’ So he became briefly a brilliant dealer in Indian painting. I went to see him once. There were no pictures hanging on the wall at all, and I said: ‘Where are all your pictures?’ He said – I wish I could imitate his accent: he was Australian and at really serious moments like that would always try and sound as lowdown and primitive as he could – ‘I got good pictures now.’ It was all said with great sarcasm. ‘I’ve had an art education. You taught me for five years. I’ve learned a lot about art.’ (By now I was feeling quite nervous). ‘And that’s why there are no pictures on the wall. Because I’ve only got good pictures now. And good pictures ask too many questions.’ And he really had a point. They do. They are extremely demanding. And you ask them endless questions as well. So how much easier to acquire something which is decorative, which is charming or has iconographic interest, or the colours go with the drapes, and so on: it’s a good buy; it’s a bargain; it’s a missing link in scholarship. All these distractions get in the way. To resist them all, to push them out of the way, you might feel is very easy, particularly if an object costs a lot of money or you had to change your life in order to acquire it. Somehow that doesn’t make it easier. It makes it more difficult.

So Cary, during the years that he used to bring his pictures to stay, taught me lessons that I don’t think I could have learned in any other way. In the years since, he has actually borrowed some pictures of mine for an exhibition that he was putting together. From then on I realised that he acknowledged that I too was a collector; to the extent that in a weak moment he once said: ‘Well, it’s really only you and I’, which actually is not true, but was again very generous.

What I’m trying to convey is that collecting is very, very hard work. And strangely unrewarding, because if one has to – as several times in my life I have had to – break off a certain section of one’s collection as if it were a piece of peanut brittle and exchange it for one, perhaps quite small, picture (though in my own case they’re usually quite large), it doesn’t necessarily make you like the new picture very much. You have to get used to it. In the end, you really have to forgive it, before you forgive yourself.

That takes me to the next thing, which is the awful autonomy of the collection. It’s like Frankenstein’s monster. It’s like having something that you can’t ever lock up in the cupboard, because it’s always coming out again. Once you have bought one masterpiece or very good picture, the next picture you buy might not be quite as good – and, of course, for me it never was, until comparatively recently. But you feel it’s got to be up there somehow; it’s got to be nearly as good. Otherwise it just sort of shrivels and goes away. That happened for some years; and my collection grew very slowly.

It’s all also a matter of luck. Kenneth Clark once pointed out that all collections are to some extent opportunist. You can only buy what is there. You can’t behave like one of the Popes, who went around stealing great books from other people until they fell out from under his robe. So you only buy what you can. The trouble is in the end the collection makes you buy things that you don’t want to buy. You think, I can’t have that, it’s too expensive, but nevertheless…Then you’re in real trouble; and that’s why you have to see if there’s any light at the end of the tunnel. In my case, when Milo Beach suggested to me more than ten years ago that an exhibition such as this should take place, I remember very vaguely thinking that perhaps when that does happen, when, in the classic way, a collector has a published catalogue, then that’s the end of it, that’s when he’ll stop collecting. So I thought, that’s when I’ll stop; and I have stopped – apart from a little mopping up here and there…

Finally, I would like to say a little about Indian painting, and about why I have bought the pictures I have. I’m not a scholar at all. I’m an artist, and my collection is the collection of an artist. Though I once made an exhibition [at the National Gallery, London in 1979] called, embarrassingly, ‘The Artist’s Eye’, I don’t think artists’ eyes have any particular virtue, except that they exist independently of scholarship. That’s not necessarily an advantage; and of course all my life as a collector, I’ve been rushing to sensitive and passionate scholars saying: ‘What do you think? What do you think?’ But I can truly say that they’ve never made me reject something I’ve bought, even if they have sometimes given me tremors about it.

When I first saw Indian painting I thought of it as the most extraordinary phenomenon, because it was a system of representation, a microcosmic world, which was completely different, yet not completely different from our own. A lot of Indian painting is extremely representational, but in a way that is sometimes literal – like the kind of symbols you see on old maps that indicate, ‘Here be trees’, or ‘Here be the city of so and so.’ But it’s often far more literal than that. I’ve never forgotten the first time I went to India and saw a pool surrounded by lilies, in a very unimportant, junky little yard somewhere; it wasn’t the yard of a palace or anything. There were birds flying about and there were bright green trees. They were absolutely similar to the kind of pool, lilies, birds and trees that you would see in an eighteenth century Deccani painting. It was a sort of one-for-one representation. The only thing that would be missing in the picture would be light from a specific source. Nothing reminds one more forcefully that, even going back to fifteenth century Italian paintings, already light comes from one side and shadows fall on the other. In Indian paintings they don’t. Shadows exist, but they’re wherever the artist wants to put them, which I think naturally appealed to me as a painter as soon as I saw them as a child. It’s the straightforwardness of Indian painting, the frankness of it which appealed to me enormously.

Whereas old European paintings tend to be covered in brown varnish and their colours may have changed a lot, Indian paintings – in spite of the remarks that everybody has made about the condition of my pictures (they’re not as bad as people say) – have survived very well. And they are made in a very straightforward way. They are paintings on paper where layers of different colours have been built up. The drawing is of tremendous importance. It’s all this kind of thing, which is really physical more than anything else, which appealed to me initially. The subject matter or narrative aspect has mattered much less. Recently I finally looked at all m y pictures together, when they were being gathered for this exhibition. I was surprised to see that in fact they were genre scenes, the kind of painting that appeals to me less than almost any other in Western art. Nearly all my Indian pictures in one way or another show real life. I do of course have pictures that have Hindu religious subjects or mythological storylines, though not many; and I think that is only because most Indian painting is about mythological subjects, so that the style of each school is built up on that kind of traditional subject matter. What is marvellous to me and ever moving, is when the artist who’s been making stereotyped images suddenly looks, as it were, slightly to one side, and starts looking at something, while still using the same wonderful strict-tempo pictorial style which has been evolved to represent, for example, the Hindu pantheon. He just moves slightly to one side and uses the same language for the features of somebody that, if he doesn’t know, he at least knows what they look like. That to me is very moving. And it’s even more moving when it is applied to plants, animals, and of course to my great love in Indian painting, elephants. I don’t think I possess a single picture of an elephant in which one could be quite certain, as one would be with a great Western artist, that Mr X – and remember that for the most part even when we know their names, Indian artists are rather anonymous compared to the one-man bands of the West – that Mr X has ever looked at an elephant, and sat there as if he was at a drawing school and sat on his little stool and held up his brush…never. It is all in his head. It is all the product of an infinitely refined imagination in the face of nature; and perhaps often – even at its greatest – of only an adequate craftsmanship.

The talk is reproduced here courtesy of Dr Milo Beach and Andrew Topsfield.