Watching Howard Hodgkin Paint, by Bernard Richards

16th November 1976

Watching Howard Hodgkin Paint

It’s a muggy afternoon; inside the studio (an old Victorian schoolroom in Shoe Lane, Oxford), it’s warm and bright. It’s just after 2.0 p.m. Howard is wearing a dark blue shirt; his closely shaved jaw is dark blue and he is at work on a canvas which at the moment is blue, black and grey. There are dark blue diagonal stripes across its top, and a light blue oblong in the centre. The blues in the faded Turkey carpets on the floor are very much lighter. His ‘palette’ is an old card table with a formica top  –  ‘the most vital piece of  equipment’ he described it as the other day. The only colour on the palette is blue. The canvas is hung vertically on the wall. To the left of  it are three others – all unfinished – which he has been working on for some time. One is an interior of  Robert Sainsbury’s house, with a view through to a brightly lit garden with a black Henry Moore statue in the centre. The marks on the pictures seem to be the result of quick, decisive, even hasty work, but when one sees the artist at work he is slow and deliberate. The palette is cleaned slowly and meticulously after the brush-strokes in the particular colour have been applied. Noises penetrate from the outside: footsteps on the cobbled lane which is a useful short-cut from the back of  Woolworth’s to the Westgate Centre. Inside it’s absolutely quiet; neither of us says anything. Now the table is sparkling white and it’s time to add another stroke. Howard sits down and looks at the picture. The blue paint glistens wet in the fluorescent light. He takes it off the wall and leans it against a table at the bottom of the studio, its back facing the wall. He lifts another picture off its place on the left of  the line of the remaining pictures and hangs it where the blue and grey picture was. He puts some red paint on the table and some medium from a gallon can. He mixes it and starts working with small circular motions on a T (with the top right hand part of  the letter missing, so that’s like an upside-down L) shape  in the centre of the picture,  which he  changes from pink to red. He wipes  a bit of  paint that starts to drip onto the green square with a paper towel. Now the ‘green squiggle’ has been covered with bright rasping movements of  the brush. On the right edge of  the upside-down L the squiggle has almost vanished, but it’s still visible.

Bernard Richards’ sketch of the painting Howard Hodgkin was working on, 16 November 1976


He sits in a wooden folding chair and looks at what he has done for half a minute.


Howard Hodgkin working in his studio in Wiltshire in 1977on Monsoon in Bombay, 1975-1977

He dabs at the edges with a paper towel, then makes some more strokes, now extending the downward part of  the upside-down L by about three inches, so  that it touches the green square dominating the lower half of the canvas. He sits and looks at that. The colour is very  emphatic against the white-painted bricks of the school-room wall. There is a cream ‘frame’ of  paint round his canvas, about four inches wide, separating the inner part of the picture from the outside environment. One can see that at some earlier stage this ‘frame’ was dark brown. These ‘frames’ obviously change as the pictures progress. The Sainsbury picture ‘frame’ was black, then became orange and is now dark brown. It’s 2.30 p.m.  Howard nips out to buy something.

It is perhaps now that Howard is away that one gets some idea of the tremendous challenge – and possible depression –  of painting in a lonely studio in winter. The state of mind is captured most hauntingly by Henry James in The Tragic Muse  (1891):

As he closed the door upon (his visitor) and took up his palette to rub it with a dirty cloth the little room in which his own battle was practically to be fought looked woefully cold and gray and mean. It was lonely, and yet it was peopled with unfriendly shadows (so thick he saw them gathering in winter twilights to come) the duller conditions, the longer patiences, the less immediate and less personal joys. His late beginning was there, and his wasted youth, the mistakes that would still bring forth children after their image, the sedentary solitude, the clumsy obscurity, the poor explanations, the foolishness that he foresaw in having to ask people to wait, and wait longer, and wait again, for a fruition which, to their sense at least, would be an anti-climax.

Nick Dormer, the ambitious amateur, was daunted by the twin spectres of  the appearance of  the natural world and the impressive achievements of his predecessors, and yet those spectres could offer some  reassurance and guidance to the struggling artist –  they could tell him roughly what the picture should look like when finished, and he could work towards the consummation in some hope of arriving at an approximation of the desired effect. But for a modern artist like Howard what a funk one could find one’s self in – staring at a half-completed canvas, looking for a sign of where he should go next, trying to reconcile the vague impression of the completed world with the perhaps contrary directions the painting itself was taking him. These suggestions emanating from the painting couldn’t be gainsayed without the awful penalty incurred when spontaneity and authenticity were violated. For an artist like Howard there are so few previous models. There are his own work, but these can only help so far and are perhaps impediments to progress rather than encouragements. The strain a serious artist might be under is all too apparent, and it suddenly makes those slow emphatic brush strokes seem each like a decisive act, heroic in some sense, since any mistake, although it could  be painted over, might trap the artist in some fatal wrong direction, ‘bring forth children after their image’. The tension is worse than for a representational artist of the kind Henry James was describing, who could always pull himself back on course by another consultation with the oracle of  pristine reality.

Five to three. Howard comes back with a six foot strip of wood, and uses it to draw a very thin red line separating the cream frame from the centre of the picture. He does the right side first, then the top, then the left, then the bottom. The paint is a bit thick on the right-hand side of the bottom line, so he wipes it to make it thinner. Now, using the stick, he makes a red line to the left of  the left-hand figure, going behind the torso. It is a strong, more assertive line than the framing lines. He goes over the top framing line again, making it cross over the cream border to touch the outside edge of  the canvas.


Howard Hodgkin working in his studio in Wiltshire in 1977 with, from left, A Henry Moore at the Bottom of the Garden, 1975-1977, Small Henry Moore at the Bottom of the Garden, 1975-1977 and After Dinner, 1976-1977.

Howard starts to talk. He asks about Francis Hodgson Burnett and her sex-life. He tries to explain the curious marital relationship in The Making of  a Marchioness  by quoting the famous line: ‘Shut your eyes and think of  England.’ Meanwhile he is adding extensions to the two vertical framing lines so that they too run over the cream border. This is the same ‘framing’ procedure as in the Sainsbury portrait.

Now Howard rips up an old blue check shirt  – one of  his own I suppose. He asks about Wallace Stevens: ‘Is he read much in England ?’   I tell him not much. He wants to know if there is a biography of him: ‘A lot is coming out about his rather lurid sex-life.’ We talk about Hockney’s picture of The Man with a Blue Guitar, and he says that he once thought about painting a picture about the Stevens poem. He makes the red framing lines a bit more emphatic. There follow quite long sessions of  sitting on the hard wooden chair.


Howard Hodgkin in his studio in Wiltshire in 1977

One wonders what he’s ‘seeing’ – it can’t altogether be the picture the casual onlooker ‘sees’. Does he see the whole completed thing, or ten stages ahead, or two, or just one ? Another little red line, this time only about three inches long, but drawn with the help of the six-foot stick; then another – a continuation of the red line in the picture. ‘Does the name Barbara Brennan  mean anything to you ?’ ‘I’m afraid not.’ ‘Is there a sort of  Academic Who’s Who ?’ ‘Yes there is, but it’s a bit erratic. I’m not in it for instance.’ I ask him ‘how far ahead’ he can see. ‘Do you mean in front of  me ?’ ‘No, I mean how far ahead in time, in the picture.’ ‘Oh, no distance at all,’ Howard replies. He does the  last bit of the red line in the picture – this time with the edge of  a post-card. A couple more red lines and Howard says he won’t do any more today. It’s 3.45.

He says that no one has watched him before. ‘They used to in times gone by: it was the way people used to learn to paint.’ I ask him if anyone has filmed him at work. ‘No, I don’t think I could bear that. I didn’t mind your being here as much as I thought I might. It might have made me go a bit quicker.’ He says that he has painted for about four hours today and that it’s been a good day: ‘I thought it might be.’

We leave the studio, and lock the heavy Victorian gothic door with its massive iron ring behind us. We walk down Shoe Lane and through the long tunnel past Woolworth’s to Cornmarket. I ask him if the work he’s been engaged on will continue to have a cream frame. He doesn’t know. ‘I should like it to, but I can’t be sure.’ He says that the blue painting is called The Caulfields Have Moved and that the Sainsbury is There’s a Moore at the Bottom of my Garden.

A Henry Moore at the Bottom of the Garden 1975 – 1977, 40 ½ x 40 ½”, 103 x 103cm

‘They’ll love it with that title in New York.’ I ask him if he knows how long it will take to finish the works. He says he has a deadline in March 1977, but the finishing touches can be very trying indeed. We’re outside the Wimpy Bar in Cornmarket. ‘I’ve just been reading  Quentin Bell’s biography of  Virginia Woolf. It’s terribly good. I like the bit where he described how mentally ill Virginia Woolf became when a work was finished. That’s just how I feel.’ We cross the Cornmarket traffic. ‘It’s very nice the way Quentin says, “Send your children out amongst the traffic.”’