Desert Island Objects – Howard Hodgkin selects, by John Guy, V & A Album, 1986, vol.5, pp.256-264.


Desert Island Objects – Howard Hodgkin selects

In continuing the tradition of inviting a person eminent in the arts to select their favourite objects in the V&A, it seemed appropriate this year to ask an artist to cast his critical eye over the collections. It is hoped that the shift in perspective might be an interesting one, following as it does the choices of a contemporary designer, Sir Terence Conran (Album 3), and our most eminent art historian, Professor Ernst Gombrich (Album 4). The choices would always be eclectic and personal, but how might a painter’s eye provide a different approach to the questions of perception and appreciation? My journey through the labyrinthine galleries and corridors of the V&A with Howard Hodgkin was something of a revelation, having my attention drawn to many of the unsung heroes of the collection. Hodgkin began exploring the riches of the V&A as a child and has never abandoned his love affair with the collections. Indeed, the Indian paintings displayed in the V&A have been something of a catalyst in many ways in Hodgkin’s own career, opening up various chromatic possibilities in his own work and contributing to his long standing interest in Indian art. 

During our tour, one was aware of the painter’s eye at work, constantly seeking objects which offered satisfying solutions to the most formal problems of design through the value assigned to colour, texture and materials to create the correct degree of surface tension. Howard Hodgkin’s ten objects draw on the full cultural eclecticism and diversity of media which characterises the V&A. The search for shared design values across cultures and materials is perhaps the element which most unites these objects in a common vision, together with a horror vacui, that fear of empty spaces which underlies the impulse to adorn.  

Howard Hodgkin began with the 1937 evening jacket designed by Charles James (Fig. 1), “One of the most original fashion designers of the twentieth century”. “It is like a piece of architecture applied to the body and yet produces an effect of total glamour, achieved with great economy (really just a piece of old eiderdown). The jacket has a presence and autonomy which renders the wearer almost incidental, simply a prop on which to display the strong arabesque forms which stand away from the body with a life of their own”. 

To Howard Hodgkin, one of the masterpieces of the V&A is the altar frontal designed by Paolo Veneziano (Fig. 2). It is the work of a leading Venetian painter of the fourteenth century and one of the finest examples of Venetian embroidery surviving from the Middle Ages. Hodgkin stresses that in his view it is also “one of the most important examples of fourteenth century Venetian art in any media. The ornament that covers virtually every surface in no way detracts from the startling humanity of the figures, as you discover them within this rich web of silver gilt embroidery. The reality of the poses is surprising, especially as they are constructed from an assemblage of different kinds of ornament. Given the loss of quality inherent in the process of craftsmen translating an artist’s design, the clarity and subtlety of the drawing is remarkable. The eloquence of the Virgin’s head is worthy of Duccio”.  

The next two objects, both examples of Islamic inlaid stone decoration, are situated at the base of the staircase leading up from the Fakes and Forgeries Gallery. Hodgkin regards the inlaid panel from a dado (Fig. 3) and the mosaic decorated fountain base from Damascus (Fig. 4) as amongst the Islamic treasures of the V&A. Of the dado panel Hodgkin observes that: “Anyone who has wandered around the mosques of Cairo would realise that this is a very rare object. The defining of the flat space and the inlaid decoration create a sense of remarkable tension in which the positive and the negative elements are kept in balance and do not disturb the harmony of the surface. Both the severity of the general design and the luxury of its ornamental detail are very exciting. It relates to the kind of Venetian decoration which uses the grandest materials in the simplest manner (such as one sees on the exterior walls of St. Mark’s), and in which the special quality of the material itself is used as ornament”.  

The octagonal fountain base inlaid with coloured marbles is another favourite, admired since childhood “when I thought it exotic – now I like it for its strict tempo design. Though comparatively late in date, it shows few signs of loss of energy”.  

The Syrian fountain basin (Fig. 5), dated to 1277 A.D., to be found in the centre of the Islamic Gallery, “is carved with extreme delicacy, even though at first glance one is more aware of its simple monumental form”. Hodgkin sees this as one of the great pieces of pattern in the V&A, with the arabesques in high relief and their leaf and vine tendril motifs dominating the decoration. The presence of naturalistic elements within a highly formalised design increases the tension of the carved marble surfaces. The rim of the basin has a finely carved Arabic inscription. For the spectator, all this is best seen from a kneeling position owing to the height of the object and the way it is lit.  

The same successful mixture of formalism and naturalism continues to be found in later Islamic art. The panel of Isnik wall tiles (Fig. 6) shares some of the same characteristics and even echoes of the main arabesques of the thirteenth century fountain basin. Hodgkin observes that “from the second half of the sixteenth century, Ottoman ornament seems to be one of the high points of applied decoration” and regards these wall tiles as among the finest of their kind.  

“Through some personal prejudice, when I first became interested in Indian art I found it very difficult to accept the naturalism of Mughal ornament, but as time has passed I have grown to love and admire it. The silver beaker with cover (Fig. 7), probably modelled on a European form, has engraved and chased decoration of remarkable quality, which must have originally been filled with translucent enamel. It was perhaps this object which first made me aware of how beautiful naturalistic Mughal ornament could be. Once you start looking at the carved and inlaid flowers on white marble Mughal buildings they become more and more exciting, as do the painted versions. It is fascinating to see how the use of different materials affected the forms or species of flowers that were depicted”. The flowers on the beaker are very close in treatment to those seen in the borders of Mughal paintings of the first half of the seventeenth century and no doubt have a common inspiration in contemporary European botanical illustrations.  

The Parisian cabinet stand of 1660 (Fig. 8) continues Hodgkin’s fascination with floral ornament. This remarkably elegant piece of furniture has been associated with the leading Parisian cabinet maker, Pierre Golle, who is known to have made several ivory cabinets for Louis XV in the early 1660s; a time when floral marquetry was still a novel form of decoration. The parallels in the treatment of the semi-naturalistic flower decoration with Mughal practice (as seen in Fig.7), suggest to Hodgkin a strongly shared sentiment. “It is not simply that they both depict flowers, but it is the peculiarly sensitive way they are used as decorative elements. Like the silver beaker, the cabinet is architecturally severe and strict and yet has such free and light-hearted ornament”.  

The clothes-press of 1764 is an early and splendid piece of English neo-classical furniture (Fig. 9). It was designed by Robert Adam for the 6th Earl of Coventry’s house, Croone Court, Worcestershire. Adam’s sumptuous design was executed by the woodcarver, Sefferin Alken, with consummate skill. The cupboard on display is only half of one of the grandest wardrobes ever made, which was later divided in two.  


Howard Hodgkin’s final choice was what he describes as a splendid piece of luggage: the Rushbrooke Hall Coffer (Fig. 10). “It is the simplicity of the ornament (riveted pieces of mother-of-pearl imitating fish scales), combined with the exotic and extravagant character of the materials, which gives this object such style, the random reflective properties of the mother-of-pearl giving the regular surface pattern an almost kinetic energy”. Many examples of Japanese coffers made for export to the West are known but few exhibit this distinctive style of decoration. It was, until 1919, at Rushbrooke Hall in Suffolk, the residence of Henry Jermyn, a prominent courtier of Charles I and Charles II and it is recorded in an inventory taken in 1759. 

The Rushbrooke Hall Coffer concluded Howard Hodgkin’s tour of the V&A. The objects chosen are, to Hodgkin, each in their own way “masterpieces of applied ornament and hopefully among the best of their kind. But nobody only likes masterpieces – and the V&A is a very good place to pick and choose – like some celestial Department Store”.  


John Guy: ‘Desert Island objects: Howard Hodgkin selects’, in V & A Album, 1986, vol.5, pp.256-264.