Lunch with the FT: Howard Hodgkin

I’m not very forgiving about writers,” warns Howard Hodgkin, “but I think writers like me because I’m articulate.” From an artist notoriously taciturn regarding his work, the claim to eloquence is comically unpersuasive: in a lifetime he has uttered no more than a few sentences about his paintings, and tends to burst into tears when admirers praise them to his face.

It is true, however, that writers – for instance, Julian Barnes, Alan Hollinghurst and James Fenton, the latter a guest at Hodgkin’s house in Normandy this Christmas – are certainly among his closest friends. Hodgkin’s vigorous/delicate, intimiste, abstract paintings, evocations of memories with titles such as “In Paris with You” or “In Bed in Venice”, for a long time appealed particularly to literary audiences for their emotional depth, intellectual ambivalence, interiority of being. Although Hodgkin won the Turner Prize in 1985, it is only in the past decade that he has become widely celebrated as one of Britain’s most important living artists.

Like all great painters, Hodgkin paints things that cannot easily be spoken – thus his silences. He accepts, characteristically, the FT’s invitation to lunch not on the occasion of an exhibition of his own work but to celebrate the first complete showing – at the Ashmolean, Oxford – of the collection of Indian art he has amassed over half a century.

In his 80th year and frail, Hodgkin arrives at the Delaunay in a wheelchair, expertly and dramatically manoeuvred around the circular array of tables by his boyfriend, the music writer Antony Peattie. A vision in grey – dark grey corduroy jacket, paler grey cardigan tightly buttoned up, dusky grey shirt, silver hair – lit up with a dashing crimson woollen scarf, the artist turns all eyes. Co-proprietor Chris Corbin swoops to greet him, and – though this is Hodgkin’s first visit to the buzzing new restaurant on the Aldwych – so do the maître d’ and several waiters. Peattie explains that they know staff who have moved here from other London restaurants founded by Corbin and his business partner Jeremy King, notably a waiter who “appeared years ago in his motorcycle leathers to work at the Ivy – now he’s married and his wife rides pillion”. Peattie removes the red scarf, settles the chair in place, and disappears to lunch alone, round the corner at the Strand Tandoori.

Hodgkin orders a glass of champagne, and I join him – the warmth of the Delaunay welcome, it turns out, extends to these not featuring on the bill. Surveying the artist’s wide face, broad brow, crumpled features, wiry eyebrows and liquid eyes, all marked by acute concentration mixed with weariness, I am reminded of the gravitas of the elderly wheelchair-bound Matisse, and say that Hodgkin is a last link with Matisse’s modernist tradition. “That makes me very sad,” he counters. “I feel lonely. I’ve always felt lonely and I think that’s a situation of being an artist.” But when I ask if he minds that fewer artists today choose to paint, he shrugs without interest “Not a lot,” and points cheerfully to himself: “this one does. I don’t talk about painting because, the way I paint, the energy, it gets used up. Painting is frightening, it’s nervous. The great thing about a collection of art is that it’s already happened.”

I think he means that the psychological strain for a painter of what he calls “emotional situations” is ongoing, intensely present – “I’m thinking about it, consciously, all the time; all sorts of things are going on while we’re having lunch.” To talk about painting would be to kill it, whereas a collection is finished, safely in the past.

Hodgkin’s interest in Indian art began in adolescence under the tutelage of an art master at Eton, Wilfred Blunt (brother of Anthony Blunt, the art historian exposed as a Soviet spy). “He was a brilliant teacher, especially of things he knew nothing about, like most great teachers. He and I became great friends. He had some kind of inside track with the royal library at Windsor and was able to borrow things. He also borrowed Indian pictures from a shop near where I live now, close to the British Museum. So, aged 13, I put together my birthday money and my Christmas money and bought my first picture – it was terrible.”

The late author Bruce Chatwin, who was a friend, described Hodgkin’s family background – ancestors include the Hodgkin who discovered lymphoma, as well as the critic and painter Roger Fry, and the Huxleys – as one of “well-ordered minds and well-furnished houses”. Hodgkin demurs: “I’ve never thought of my family as being well-ordered. But there were some wonderful members, like my cousin Margery Fry.” Why was she wonderful? “She wore bright green evening dress at three o’clock in the afternoon. She collected, too, but she would never admit it. There were many collectors in our family, it didn’t really matter what. My father’s cousin, Eliot Hodgkin, had wonderful paintings by Corot and Degas, and I managed to persuade him to buy a few Indian pictures. My father was at Eton: my grandmother sold a collection of miniature furniture to fund his education. She was terrific. I didn’t really get on with my mother. She was very beautiful and very narcissistic and wasn’t at all nice to my sister, whom I loved. My father wasn’t, either. I left Eton as soon as I could, in a very dramatic way. I ran away. I was found by a policeman. He said, ‘Why are you running away?’ I said, ‘Because I want to be an artist.’ He thought that was a very good reason. He was literally the only person who took me seriously as an artist. Wilfred [Blunt] could only take me seriously as some kind of mad connoisseur. My parents didn’t take my art seriously.”

Hodgkin stifles a sob, and turns to the menu – a range of classic brasserie comfort food, with an accent on central Europe. “The simple dishes are the best,” Hodgkin advises – he is a regular at the Delaunay’s sister restaurant the Wolseley, and the offerings are similar. “I happen to love frankfurters,” he explains. To maintain the Germanic theme I choose Wiener schnitzel, with mash and wilted spinach. “And we need red wine on a day like this,” adds Hodgkin, with a wave through the big deco windows at London’s bleak, damp streets. We each order a glass of Merlot.

India, when he began visiting in 1964, must have been a stunning contrast after grey England. “It was a relief and an escape, from being at home, from marriage and family. I was gay and I was very worried about it – because of the children. I have wonderful children [Hodgkin married in 1955 and his sons Louis and Sam were born in 1958 and 1960] – and actually I stayed married until about two years ago.” He met Peattie at a party in 1983 and they have been together since. “I knew at once. So did he. He’s a wonderful support. But the 1960s and 1970s were very difficult. I fell in love with an American collector of Indian paintings.” This was Stuart Cary Welch, known as Cary, one-time curator of Islamic and Later Indian Art at Harvard Art Museums.

Did the relationship bring happiness? “No, it wouldn’t, would it?” What did it bring? “The paintings. The affair wasn’t a turning point, I’d fallen in love with men before. But India helped very much and still does. I just stay in luxury hotels there now.” The country did not, however, induce the voluptuous liberation that Chatwin described in a 1982 essay called “Indian Leaves”. “That stupid article is absolute rubbish. I loved Bruce but he couldn’t have been more wrong.” Hodgkin stops abruptly. “I feel rather at a loss talking about that period of my life because it came and went rather fast.” I persist and say that his paintings before and after he came out seem to me erotic. “I hope so.” Are sex and creativity similar? “Identical. Absolutely come from the same place. But sex attacks everybody at different levels”.

The food arrives. Hodgkin slices his frankfurters thinly and eats small forkfuls, adding a little mash, and delivers this verdict: “A great new restaurant, very straightforward.” My schnitzel is crisp and enormous. As I grapple with it, Hodgkin slowly sips Merlot and recounts how he threw himself into his Indian acquisitions – by 1976, and his first retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford (now Modern Art Oxford), Hodgkin was better known as a collector than a painter.

Welch, who died in 2008, was a key influence but he was also a rival. When Welch’s collection was auctioned last year, “There was”, says Hodgkin, “no sentiment involved in trying to acquire something from his collection. I loved Cary but I had no illusions about his ruthless pursuit of his own interests. He went to inordinate lengths to stop me buying things he wanted, which he could afford much more easily than I could. He once sat next to me at a Sotheby’s sale and held my hand down, to stop me bidding against him. I was so shocked I didn’t use my other hand.”

Hodgkin’s collection, each work chosen for its “intensity of feeling – a shot in the heart”, and with a painter’s eye, is among the most distinguished in the world. “The great thing about Indian paintings is that they are very small – so, naturally, I only really like the big ones,” he says. The Ashmolean display is revelatory to him. “Now I’m struck all over again by [the] quality.” He does not keep the Indian works at home, preferring to loan them. So why collect? “I really don’t know.” At home, he has “Patrick Caulfield – I live with some of his pictures, we had almost a mutual admiration. I loved him dearly, he was my only real friend in the London art world.” Oh, and last year, says Hodgkin, “Antony bought a wonderful Degas at a local saleroom, a very early history painting, as a present for me.”

Once, when I visited Hodgkin’s studio and asked him about influence, he replied, “Degas, Degas, Degas, Degas.” He has talked of “the classical wall of expressed feeling that Degas has built for us”; this resonates with his own expressive yet oblique and tautly disciplined painting, distilling memory into rigorous, formally resolved pictures. Although abstract, these evoke glowing interior worlds, redolent of Degas, Bonnard, Vuillard.

As for any great artist, private feelings are transformed into pictorial statements by impersonal marks and brushstrokes, but his is an inescapably autobiographical art, which for decades went against the grain of pop, minimalism, conceptualism. Was Andy Warhol – his near-contemporary, born exactly four years earlier (the two share a birthday, August 6) – a difficult presence during this period? “No, I rather admired him, he’s so good. America is very important to me, emotionally, artistically.” Hodgkin spent part of his childhood there during the second world war and, after he had run away from a second boarding school (Bryanston), he persuaded a psychologist to recommend a return to New York in 1948.

“I needed something that only existed in America – freedom, love. But I still feel isolated from time to time. I remember recently in New York, some celebrity painter said, ‘Oh yes, you’re a colourist, aren’t you?’” He mimics a sneer and looks mournful. When I ask how he has been affected by the death last summer of another American contemporary, Cy Twombly – his only rival as a 21st-century abstract painter (“I’m jealous of him, of course,” he had told me days before Twombly died) – he announces suddenly: “I’ve gone deaf, we’ll have to continue this conversation at home.” He downs the Merlot, and I call for both the bill and, via mobile phone, Peattie.

The two arrive simultaneously, and Hodgkin submits to the bustle of being escorted from table to taxi, then from taxi to studio, to Peattie’s chorus of encouragement. “Did you have enough to eat? Didn’t you have pudding? Lift your right foot here – now just pull your trousers up – take your right hand from the yellow bar, very good Howard, excellent – oh, no what are you doing?” – to the taxi driver, “Oh dear, he’s subsided” They both charm the cabbie, who consoles Hodgkin with, “Isn’t he bossy?”

“You see, I do have some allies,” Hodgkin beams as he invites me in for coffee, but he is tired and I visit the large, light studio – a former dairy – only to glimpse two new, monumental prints, destined for a summer show at Alan Cristea Gallery. Hodgkin rests in a battered armchair while his assistant unveils “Stormy Weather” – sumptuous ridges and waves of blue – and a thick tangle of purple and yellow diminishing into curlicues and drips, called “Attack”. “The title was shortened, from ‘Heart Attack’”, Hodgkin mutters. Producing such works, in a frenzy of energy, leaves him exhausted for several days. “A painter’s life is difficult. Economic despair. Emotional despair. No one ever loved me,” Hodgkin sums up as I say goodbye. Then he grins at Peattie. “Why are you looking so sceptical?”

‘Visions of Mughal India: The Collection of Howard Hodgkin’, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, February 2-April 22; ‘Howard Hodgkin Prints’, Alan Cristea Gallery, London, May 31-July 7

Jackie Wullschlager is the FT’s art critic.

The Delaunay

55 Aldwych

London WC2B 4BB

Lunch covers x2 £4.00

Glass of champagne x2 Gratis

Frankfurter £9.00

Wiener schnitzel £19.75

Mashed potatoes £3.75

Spinach £4.75

Still water £1.50

Glass of Merlot x2 £11.50

Total (including service) £61.03

Jackie Wullschlager on what and why artists collect

Howard Hodgkin writes in the catalogue to his Indian collection: “Artists have always collected art. Perhaps because it’s something from elsewhere. A professional artist sells what he makes. Buying art fills the void that comes as work leaves the studio.” Artists through the ages have built diverse collections of others’ works, for diverse purposes.

Damien Hirst (born 1965): “murderme collection”

“As you go through life, you just do collect ... amassing stuff while you’re alive,” says Hirst. He collects artists who have most influenced him: his greatest work is Francis Bacon’s “Study for a Figure at the Base of a Crucifixion” (1943-1944); he has a Warhol “Little Electric Chair” (“I f**king need one of those,” he said on buying it) and pieces by Jeff Koons and Richard Prince. A generous patron of Young British Artists, he has bought from Sarah Lucas, the late Angus Fairhurst, Tracey Emin, Gavin Turk, Marcus Harvey. Hirst is restoring Toddington Manor near Cheltenham as a home for his “murderme collection”.

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973): African and Oceanic art

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

Picasso would not have painted “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” without his obsession with African and Oceanic sculpture. His lover Fernande Olivier recorded how he “became fanatical, and accumulated statuettes, masks and fetishes of all African regions”. He favoured objects turning on the metamorphosis between human and animal, such as the Bamana masks from Mali; this reflected his artistic concern with enlarging the possibility of figural representation, and his belief in the double nature of man as human being and bull.

Edgar Degas (1834-1917): 19th-century French paintings

Degas was the only major French artist of his time to collect seriously. Though he acquired works by contemporaries – Manet, Pissarro, Cézanne – these tended to be the less shocking ones. His real interest was to understand the history of recent French painting, the split between classicism and romanticism, how modernity related to tradition; the artists he bought most keenly were Ingres, Delacroix and Daumier.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669): Old Master drawings and prints

Rembrandt was a compulsive collector, often buying beyond his means. He owned drawings by Raphael, Dürer and Michelangelo, which he used as starting points for his own compositions, and collected Dutch artists such as Hendrik Goltzius and Lucas van Leyden. He lost the lot when he went bankrupt in 1656.

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