“Epic. Powerful. Brutal. Incredible. Miraculous. Spectacular.” Hyperbole is essential when speaking of PETER HOWSON’s work. His current retrospective filling four floors of Edinburgh City Art Centre is typically impressive: 100 colossal canvases, oils spanning 40 years. Their subject? Man’s inhumanity to man. Religion plays a key role – and always has. “I believe in God,” states this articulate, honest, modest man, now 65.
Howson is driven. “I need to paint. It keeps me sane. I go to the studio every day at 9 am.” His Aspergers means he likes routine.
I have written about Peter Howson and his work for over 40 years. During that time, his meteoric rise to the flavour of the year, plus Hollywood friends via troubled Bosnian war artist followed by turmoil, both personal and mental, provided plenty of copy for newspapers and kept him in the public eye.
But years ago, it was the exquisite drawing and incredible draughtsmanship – still central to his work – that stopped me in my tracks in 1978 when I first saw this totally unknown young artist’s work propped against skirting boards in a cafe/gallery in Ayr. My kids had wanted ice cream. I was writing for the local paper, pre 20 years as an art critic for the Glasgow Herald. Later Peter’s mum told me that at that time, Peter was stacking supermarket shelves. My encouraging words proved significant. He went back to Art School.
In February 1985, I drove to St Andrews to review his show as Crawford Centre artist in residence. “Howson’s work concentrates on figures in an urban setting. He works largely from imagination, and his harshly lit dramatic compositions have that nightmare quality of exaggerated action compounded by an ominous atmosphere. The bottle in his hip pocket, cigarette in old aluminium ashtray, her thick lipstick and bleached hair – all speak volumes of desperation and anguish.” I wrote that 38 years ago – but it serves well today.
Edinburgh’s City Art Centre is a great venue for his retrospective. The hang is chronological, with new work at the top. You start with early work, famous images from the mid-1980s. “The Boxer” 1985 is a key painting – huge, heroic, memorable. One of several versions, it was in Third Eye’s ‘New Image Glasgow’ exhibition when an enthusiastic Januszczak review sent Matt Flowers hot foot to see the show. Matt tells the story of “tracking Peter down and making a quick dash to Glasgow.” What he doesn’t say is that he phoned my home, got my young daughter who told him I was in London at the Chelsea Arts Club. In days pre-cell phones, you had to run to the tiny entrance to answer outside calls. Matt asked for Peter’s number. I had to tell him to call my child again and get her to search in a box under the bed. Thus Flowers Gallery owes their capture of Peter in the face of other dealers to my eight-year-old!
By 1986 I was involved in two Edinburgh Festival shows – ‘Artists at Work’ 1986 and ‘The Vigorous Imagination’ 1987, both to include Howson. These came about entirely due to young Dundee painters Phil Braham and Ian Hughes, who decided to protest at the zero attention the 1985 Festival gave young Scottish artists while young French artists were spotlighted at the RSA. They sent me a photo of themselves hanging their paintings on the RSA railings; I passed it on to Roddy Forsyth for his Herald Arts gossip column. Edinburgh Festival director Frank Dunlop saw it and invited the boys to London to air their complaints! When asked what they wanted, they said – a show of young Scots put together by Clare Henry.
So began a hectic schedule, I was co-curating the Serpentine Summer show too, but these events changed lives and put Scottish art on the international map.
Howson had several works in the Vigorous Imagination, including a huge football scene, but the stand out was definitely ‘Heroic Dosser’. Another story is retold by Matt. A small sell-out Howson show in London decided them “to go all out at the May Chicago Art Fair and exhibit a huge newly finished painting, the Heroic Dosser. It was purchased on the opening night by a major US collector.” I was keen to include it in the Vigorous Imagination, so it was shipped back from America especially. At some point in transit, a forklift truck managed to pierce through the shipping crate. Imagine the drama! The brilliant Scottish National Gallery restorers fixed things, and the Dosser was shown in pride of place in the Vigorous Imagination. The collector later donated the painting to the National Gallery collection – so happily, you can see it here!
There followed years of success for Howson, but “The more that money flowed in, the more the fame came, the less I was able to handle it.” Despite drink and drugs, he painted feverishly, producing some memorable pix. In 1993 Howson had a major retrospective at Glasgow McLellan Galleries. Now married with a small daughter, in 1994, he was asked to be Britain’s Bosnian war artist.
The Bosnia room here is one of the best. Terrifying, violent, menacing, it’s the stuff of nightmares, which was just what happened to Howson. The horror of mutilated limbs, heads on poles seen close up in real life caused severe mental health problems. On the other hand this vision of hell inspired some brilliant paintings.
The second floor features Howson’s well-known reaction to extreme right-wing muscular cudgel-bearing, flag-waving thugs, along with religious images. From his youth, Howson believed in God. In 2003 a private commission to paint The Stations of the Cross resulted in intensely moving small memorable pictures which are shown in a section to themselves.
The top floor features new work, inevitably much relating to the Co-Vid pandemic. Intense, visceral frantic images, tight, detailed, some overwrought, they present a terrifying scenario, a truly apocalyptic nightmare. Lockdown allowed Howson’s tendency to overwork to run riot. Tense, agitated, linear, his graphic gift has become excessive, indulgent. Hideous violence rules among masks. Well, maybe all true for today.
Words/Photos: Clare Henry June 2023
Peter Howson AT 65 Until 1 October Edinburgh City Art Centre