Visions of Mughal India: The Collection of Howard Hodgkin, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford ***** 

Ben Luke, Evening Standard, 22/03/2012  

Howard Hodgkin says he knew he was going to be a painter at the age of five, and began collecting Indian art in his teens. These two obsessions have dominated his life ever since. When not creating his intense and highly coloured paintings,  Hodgkin has assembled one of the finest collections anywhere of art from the Indian Mughal period (c1550 to 1850), shown in its entirety here. 

Hodgkin says his collecting is triggered by beauty and an emotional pull rather than art historical criteria but such is his devotion that his collection contains distinct groups of most of the types of painting that flourished in the Mughal era, largely secular images and genre scenes. 

The exhibition is organised according to different regions, from the imperial court in Delhi to the Punjab hills, and underlines the fact that while the key elements of Indian painting of the period — the vivid colour, exquisite decorative detail and flattened depiction of space — are common to all areas, styles and subjects vary in subtle ways. 

Take his collection of paintings of elephants from the imperial Mughal court and the Rajasthani Kota school. The imperial paintings portray the animals with the same poise and delicacy as portraits of emperors and noblemen, emphasising their grandeur and importance to the court. The Rajasthani works are all about physical power — images of elephants fighting or charging in a royal lion hunt teem with energy realised with brisk drawing. 

The best of all the elephant paintings is a fantasy in which a Maharao hunts with the deity Brijnathji in a forest, a complex scene featuring animals as well as groups of nobles and musicians. It’s tumultuous and serene, intimate and epic. 

This and so many of the paintings reflect the very particular representation of a microcosmic world that so fascinates Hodgkin. You can spend hours absorbed in these exquisite works, and magnifying glasses available at the entrance only serve to deepen your engagement. It provides a unique insight into an artist’s lifelong passion and unrelenting pursuit of the best in Indian art — it is also an exhibition of remarkable beauty.



Michael Prodger, The Spectator, 03/03/12  

Alongside his distinguished career as a painter, Howard Hodgkin has also long been a collector of note. As a schoolboy at Eton he was given to bouts of running away but while briefly in situ his art master, Wilfrid Blunt (the brother of Anthony),  borrowed a 17th-century Indian painting of a chameleon from the Royal Collection to enliven a lesson and Hodgkin was hooked. He started buying Indian pictures then and has continued ever since. 

‘My collection has nothing to do with art history,’ he says. ‘It is entirely to do with the arbitrary inclinations of one person.’ It is a method that has, nevertheless, resulted in one of the world’s great collections of Indian art. Hodgkin has made several attempts to stop buying more but he’s a recidivist, not least because ‘a professional artist sells what he makes. Buying art fills the void that comes as each work leaves the studio.’ 

The fruit of his compulsion, 115 pictures that alternately dazzle and mystify, is now on show in Visions of Mughal India at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. It doesn’t quite amount to an overview of Indian painting from the mid-16th century to the mid-19th because some genres, notably religious images, don’t much interest Hodgkin. The exhibition does, however, give a vivid account of the different Indian schools and the sometimes extraordinary quality of its usually anonymous artists. 

The Mughal school of painting was founded by the Emperor Akbar (reigned 1556–1605), the grandson of the dynastic head Babur. He encouraged a court art that married Persian miniaturist techniques with local Indian manners and European influence. The style spread — and was adapted — across India, from the Punjab to the Deccan Sultanates. The repertoire of subjects encompassed court life, portraiture, wildlife and hunting scenes, all depicted with a love of pattern and with pale green as a signature colour. The majority of the works were for manuscripts and that is perhaps how they are best viewed, not in comparison with Western oil painting but with the medieval illuminated manuscript tradition. This makes more sense of their lack of perspective, the importance of profile, the mixture of sizes within a single image, and the non-naturalistic use of colour that seem so alien to eyes accustomed to European Renaissance paintings. 

It is, though, almost impossible not to make references to Western art when looking at Hodgkin’s collection. There is, for example, a beautiful portrait drawing c.1640 of Iltifat Khan, a minor official in the court of Shah Jahan (the builder of the Taj Mahal), that is Holbeinesque in its immediacy and spareness. In life, Khan was apparently a well-born underachiever, but the artist shows him in pure profile, bright-eyed and alert; he could have been a member of Henry VIII’s circle from a century earlier and a world away — courts and courtiers are interchangeable. 

Scenes of noble life — a music party by a river or the delights of a cup of wine and a hookah pipe on a terrace — are rendered with a minute detail that recalls the paintings of the sharp-edged documenter of Venetian life Vittore Carpaccio. Hunting scenes with tigers the prey are as common in Mughal art as paintings of bear or stag hunts are in the West. As are rich men’s toys. Akbar’s pigeon coop held some 20,000 birds, the pick of which he liked to watch fly in synchronised ‘love play’. He had a favourite male and female pair depicted in a touching image of avian devotion; they nestle against each other with the imperial gold rings on their legs, each blue-grey wing feather rendered in exquisite detail against the pure white of their bodies. 

The most prized possessions, though, were elephants and they are Hodgkin’s favourites, too; the exhibition is filled with the trumpety trump of pachyderms. There are portraits of individual animals, proudly displayed just as Georgian aristocrats would ask George Stubbs to immortalise their prize horses, and a vivid scene of the capture of a wild bull elephant, each stage of the dangerous procedure shown in bande dessinée style. The most thrilling example is a wondrous drawing of two elephants fighting, c.1655–60, from Kota in Rajasthan. In a tour de force of penmanship the animals clash heads, coming together in a Celtic knot of trunks and legs, the fluid rippling of their skin brought out with a maze of Op Art hatching. It is a picture of enormous skill and these remarkable beasts are the Indian equivalent of Dürer’s rhinoceros. 

This dazzling little exhibition, a compilation of Indian Scheherazade tales, is full of such surprises. Hodgkin says that when buying, what he looks for are pictures that give ‘an authentic shot to the heart’: there are more than enough examples here to deliver the most pleasurable of palpitations.



Visions of Mughal India: The Collection of Howard Hodgkin, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford****

Judith Flanders, Sunday Telegraph 25/03/12 

The artist Howard Hodgkin has been collecting Indian art since he was at Eton. For some years now his collection has been on loan to the Ashmolean, and a rotating selection of pictures from it are frequently on display. Yet to see all 100-plus  works together is a revelation, as viewers get a sense not only of the collection, but also an insight into the collector’s personality: what speaks to him. 

Miniatures from the Mughal empire often depict tiny, enclosed spaces, with figures delicately placed among painstakingly reproduced textiles and carefully detailed flora and fauna, the layers of pattern deftly weaving themselves into magically perfect worlds. Hodgkin is drawn to these depictions of what he calls “a whole world”, one that’s both “completely convincing” and “completely separate” from Western tradition. But Hodgkin also appears attracted to more open compositions, to works that integrate the white paper as an element in the image. 

He obviously also has a passion for elephants, perhaps because they too are most often displayed against flat coloured backgrounds – though the animals’ combination of majesty and charm as painted by these Indian masters would beguile anyone. However minimal the composition, the personalities of these royal beasts shine through. One even appears to have his eye slyly on the viewer, almost smiling with shy pride at the splendour of his flowered saddle-cloth. Other works head towards abstraction: Sultan Ali Adil Shah II hunting a tiger (1660) shows a gloriously gold-gowned bow man taking aim, but the eye focuses more on the elaborate textile folds and greyed-out background than on the action, the tiger merely snarling quietly at the edge of the page. 

Some are quirky curiosities, such as Maharaja Balwant Singh and a goose, a drawing of a courtyard flattened out schematically, like a blueprint, while in the centre, staring solemnly at each other, are a goose and a man, the latter a stark black-pencilled silhouette adorned with a pair of pink shoes. What is this a picture of? An omen, a dream, a legend? Or just the ultimate odd couple? 

As well as these works from the major artistic centres of Mughal art, there are also a number of pictures from smaller Rajput courts. Particularly beautiful are the tiny works created to illustrate the subjects of musical modes, or ragas (currently the subject of a smaller, less refined show at Dulwich Picture Gallery) . 

While it’s easy to find analogies with Western art, the uniqueness of these works always fights back. The colour-world, for one, is inconceivable in the West before the 20th century, filled as it is with hot pinks, dazzling oranges and acid blues that make even the Fauves look tame. 

Bright colours do not necessarily signify a cheerful world, though. Bhadrakali, the Destroyer of the Universe, is a blue skinned four-armed goddess who literally consumes the dead, and here the intense colours highlight Kali’s power as she defies both time and death. 

And that, of course, is what great art does: it defies time and death. In the end, the labels “Western” and “Eastern” do not matter. As these two shows allow us to discover, a “shot to the heart” is there for anyone who has the will to look, and the desire to learn. 

The world of Mughal enclosures, diamond-bright and bejewelled, could not be further away from our own; and yet, like the goddess Kali, the art it produced devours time and space, defying the centuries to continue to move us today.

Shot to the heart – Judith Flanders, Seven, 25/03/2012



Shabana Mahmud, India Today, reporting on British Museum exhibition of Howard Hodgkin’s collection, 08/15/94

IT’S an exhibition with a difference. This is not the first time that the British Museum in London is showing Indian paintings and drawings, but the difference this time is that the 42 works on show are from the collection of Howard Hodgkin, one of Britain’s greatest living artists. Over the years Hodgkin has established himself as an equally gifted and discerning collector of Indian art.

The works on display cover most of the major schools of Indian painting, Muslim as well as Rajput, spanning three centuries, from the 16th to the 19th. They reflect the passionate taste of a practising artist rather than the cool judgement of an art historian. Apart from the Mughal style—which dominates the collection—Hodgkin clearly favours the Rajasthani school of painting.

Hodgkin’s interest in Indian art started at Eton when his instructor organised an exhibition of illustrated Mughal manuscripts from the Royal Library of the nearby Windsor Castle. The 14-year-old Hodgkin decided then and there that he wanted to collect Indian paintings too. He now says that his collecting has always been instinctive, driven by feeling rather than knowledge. 

He has never been interested in building up a comprehensive and balanced collection in the museum sense. Rather, he prefers large paintings and unfinished pieces which allow the artist’s work to show through—some of the works in his collection are incomplete or even fragmentary. Portraits, whether of humans or elephants, predominate, while Indian landscapes lurk quietly in the background. 

This exhibition, therefore, offers a unique opportunity to view a collection dictated by the personal preferences of one artist, and a European at that. Few leading European artists have evinced such an interest in Oriental or non-Western art to compile collections of their own. Two notable exceptions were the French impressionist Claude Monet, who collected Japanese prints, and Pablo Picasso, who collected African tribal art. But while Monet’s and Picasso’s work was clearly influenced by their collections, Hodgkin’s work does not reflect any such distinct Indian influence. 

He himself denies categorically that he has been influenced by any of the miniatures in his collection, but acknowledges that India, which he has been visiting repeatedly since the ‘60s, is a land of inspiration for him: “I pick up things from here and put them into the subconscious, which re-emerge unknowingly later on in England.” To an average art lover though, Hodgkin’s paintings do have a distinct Indian look, and not just works such as On the Edge of the Indian Ocean or The Terrace, Delhi which are clearly set in modern India. 

Having studied Indian art so closely for so long, Hodgkin feels Europeans can relate to it easily, particularly to Mughal art, because of its naturalism and its depictions of reality, so different from Western art. For instance, he explains, “A leaf is drawn as a leaf to be seen as such, not as it can easily be in early European paintings, a green shade illuminated by light.” A particular predilection that Hodgkin has shown in his collection is for elephants, which “give many opportunities for observation which are superior to what human beings provide”. This explains his partiality towards Kota paintings, as he believes they are among the greatest portrayals of elephants, and indeed, of animals.

Although Hodgkin admits he has not followed the contemporary art scene closely, he has certainly contributed to it. One of his recent works was the black-and-white mural on the facade of the new British Council building in New Delhi. 

In recent years, Hodgkin has been trying to move away from collecting art and concentrating only on creating it. However, he has had problems reconciling the collector in him with the artist. Although he believes that collecting in itself is a creative activity and the best collectors are artists of a certain kind, he considers himself a painter first. Says Hodgkin: “I’m really an artist as a painter, and so as a collector I feel I’m in a slightly false position.”

Secondly, Hodgkin finds he cannot give the same kind of commitment to collecting that he has been giving over the years. “I am growing old and I haven’t got the energy or the ability anymore to combine collecting paintings and doing my own work.” Unfortunate though that sounds, art lovers can feel relieved that Hodgkin has already managed to assemble a collection that few other modern private collectors of Indian art can rival either in quality or range. The painter himself is not so easy to please. On being asked if he was happy with his collection, his reply was: “Oh, not in the slightest.”



Sheila Canby, Apollo Magazine, reporting on the British Museum exhibition, ‘Indian Paintings and Drawings from the Collection of Howard Hodgkin’, June 1994

The British Museum’s exhibition of works from Howard Hodgkin’s collection consists of paintings published in the eponymous catalogue as well as a number of new acquisitions. Those familiar with the Hodgkin Collection might expect additional Kotah drawings of elephants or scenes of Rajput rulers entertained in elegant gardens. They will not be disappointed. Yet other, somewhat smaller, works by Mughal and Deccani artists reveal both the breadth of Howard Hodgkin’s taste and the variety of artistic approaches to be encountered in Indian painting of the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. In all, twenty-four Indian paintings, either newly acquired or not recently shown, will be exhibited with the forty-two catalogued works.

Among the Mughal paintings are two outstanding animal studies. A pair of Mynah birds belongs to a large group of bird pictures which were produced from the mid-sixteenth century onward. That flora and fauna should have proved so abidingly popular in Mughal painting is no surprise since the first emperor, Babur (r. 1526-30), and his son and great-grandson, Humayun (r. 1530-56) and Jahangir (r. 1605-27), were keen observers of nature. Like many Mughal bird pictures, the Mynah birds have been depicted as a pair, male and female, in different […]. Yet, unlike the majority of such studies in which the background is either a neutral colour or a landscape, here it is bright red. Not only does this anticipate the bold palette of some schools of Pahari painting, but also its effect is to transform an otherwise tame, straightforward bird study into an interplay of shapes and colour verging on the abstract. The portrait of the elephant Khushi Khan, painted about 1650 during the reign of Shah Jahar (r. 1629-58), also falls within an established Mughal tradition of formal portraits of important royal elephants which no doubt derived from Persian and early Mughal horse portraiture. Because of the recreational and military usefulness of elephants to Mughal emperors, the best among them were treated with the same respect as pure-bred Persian stallions. The gold trappings and sumptuous gold-embroidered blanket suggest that Khushi Khan was dressed for a royal parade, the type of event that occurred after the Mughals defeated Indian provincial rulers and seized their war elephants. The decoration of the elephant’s blanket closely resembles that in a Deccani painting from Bijapur of c. 1645, also in the Hodgkin Collection. Since several texts mention gifts of elephants presented by Sultan Mohammad Adil Shah of Bijapur to Shah Jahar, it is possible that Khushi Khan, his blanket and jewellery were among such tribute. 

In contrast to the painting of Khushi Khan, as formal as any portrait of a Mughal emperor, a page of flower drawings represents the preparatory stages of a Mughal nature study or album border. In addition to having shown several views of flowers of the same species, the artist has included many more types than are normally found in one botanical drawing. Moreover, the inclusion of flowers with stems bent in spiral suggest that the artist was working on the problems of floral arabesques. Even so, […] this lively depiction, the flowers are rendered […] if fluttering slightly in a breeze. Some of the finest of all Mughal album borders were produced during the reign of Shah Jahan, and the flowers with straight stems on this sheet may have been models for one of those albums with floral borders. 

A major genre of Mughal painting was the illustration of historical manuscripts, some of which chronicle the reigns of the Mughal emperors themselves. The Reception for the Persian ambassador at the Mughal court (Plate I) by Hunhar, c. 1640, is the right-hand page of a double-page composition which must have included the ambassador on the left page. One can tentatively identify the embassy as that of Yadgar Beg, emissary of Shah Safi (r. 1629-42). In spring 1637 Shah Safi sent Yadgar Beg to India with the urgent mission of averting the Mughal seizure of Qandahar. Yagdar Beg sped to Agra but he arrived too late. Qandahar had fallen to the Mughals in February 1638. To lessen the awkwardness of Yadgar Beg’s situation, Shah Jahar showered him with gifts. At the left the Persians in their round turbans stand impassively as the panoply of gifts and Indian courtiers passes before them. 

Two new Deccani works in the Hodgkin Collection point up the contrast between the Deccani and Mughal approach to the depiction of historical events and decorative themes. The wedding procession has been identified as that of Sultan ‘Abdullah Quib Shah of Golconda (r. 1626-72). Whereas all is pomp and stately poses in the Mughal Reception, the figures in the Wedding procession chat to one another and look this way and that as they hurry alongside the royal couple. Beyond the foreground group, space is undefined. Does the bullock cart carrying the bride’s attendants roll along a road or on air? By contrast, the Mughal painting leaves no doubt where figures are placed in the courtyard. 

Produced at the end of Bijapur’s independence from Mughal domination, a pair of lacquered book covers none the less exhibits a freedom from the Mughal influence that was rapidly making inroads in Bijapuri painting. Whereas the Mughal draughtsman of the page of flower drawings maintained a balance in the proportion of flowers to stems, the Deccani artist has produced the grandiflora version of every flower in the lower register. Likewise, some of the butterflies floating near the trees and vases appear as large as some of the birds. These lapses in verisimilitude simply add to the charm of the book covers. Despite the natural and political disasters – drought, plague, and conquest – that struck Bijapur after 1686, these book covers, suffused with golden light, suggest that only pleasure could be found in the pages within them. The same can be said of the paintings and drawings in the Hodgkin Collection.


INDIAN PAINTINGS AND DRAWINGS FROM THE COLLECTION OF HOWARD HODGKIN by Andrew Topsfield and Milo Cleveland Beach (With notes on the collection by Howard Hodgkin) Thames and Hudson

Rosemary Crill, Antique, Spring 1992

This magnificent group of Indian paintings needs no starred provenance to give it status, but the fact that they were all collected by the artist Howard Hodgkin does lend them an added fascination. Hodgkin has been collecting Indian paintings for over thirty years, and by a process of frequent change and distillation the present collection has achieved a quality and range that makes for a stunning and often surprising exhibition and catalogue. 

Hodgkin has contributed some engaging and direct ‘notes on the collection’ in which he states that the academic aspect of collecting has very little interest for him, and that he collects Indian pictures because he finds them beautiful. This intuitive approach has led to a concentration on paintings from Rajasthan and the Punjab in which a bold use of colour often combines with a strong sense of movement and narrative very different to the icily perfect Mughal style, which Hodgkin largely ignores. His Mughal paintings are from Akbar’s reign or shortly after, a period when dynamic co-operation between Rajput and Mughal artists was taking place. The first painting in the catalogue, for example, from the great Hamzanama series done for Akbar in the 1560s and 70s, is a masterpiece of pattern and design. 

A rare example of the Mughal style transplanted into the Punjab Hills is seen in no. 15, a splendid narrative picture of a bridegroom’s procession passing through a bazaar. The more widely known type of Pahari (hill) painting, in which Rajput rulers pose against vibrant blocks of colour, is also represented, as are several less conventional examples of the Rajasthani version of the ruler taking his ease. Paintings from obscure centres such as Sawar, Junia and Raghugarh appeal to Hodgkin as much as the more refined works of artists from Mewar, the foremost painting school in Rajasthan. One marvellous scene (no. 39) of Maharana Jagar Singh enjoying himself with his fourteen queens is damaged but still has great presence.

Hodgkin’s love of elephant pictures is much in evidence. Perhaps the greatest of all Indian elephant paintings are the monumental hunt scenes from Kota in Rajasthan, and four splendid examples are illustrated here, along with a further five elephant portraits of a more sedate nature. The paintings are catalogued by two highly-respected scholars on Indian painting, and the caption to each painting gives full art-historical details of content, iconography and style, as well as references to comparable paintings in other collections and translations of inscriptions. In addition, Andrew Topsfield has contributed an informative and elegantly written introduction of Rajput and Mughal paintings which sets them in the context of the Hodgkin collection and their owner’s taste, including his predilection for ‘big pictures’. About half of the paintings are unusually large by Indian standards, and although this beautifully produced catalogue reproduces the pictures excellently, their size as well as their quality will be perhaps the biggest surprise when the exhibition comes to the Ashmolean Museum later this year.