Born Gordon Howard Eliott Hodgkin in Hammersmith 1932, Hodgkin came from a large family of high achievers. Cousin to Bloomsbury Group member Robert Fry, great-great-grandson of scientist Thomas Hodgkin (who gave his name to Hodgkin’s Lymphoma), Young Howard was also related to the chemist and meteorologist Luke Howard (who gave names to the clouds), as well as collector Eliot Hodgkins and the conductor Sir John Eliot Gardener. His father, a passionate gardener, also had a gift of collecting awards, bagging the Royal Horticultural Society’s gold medal for the groaning family mantlepiece.
With such lineage perhaps it is no wonder that Howard Hodgkin is one of the most decorated abstract painters and printmakers of modern times, appointed a CBE in 1977, knighted in 1992, and awarded the Turner Prize in 1985. In 2000, he was awarded an honorary DLitt by the University of Oxford and made a Companion of Honour in the 2003 New Year Honours for his services to art, becoming a Trustee of the National Gallery, he was awarded the Shakespeare Prize in Hamburg in 1997 and in 2014 won the first Whitechapel Gallery Art Icon award. It is an intimidating CV and a testament to Hodgkin’s ambition and determination when you consider that he decided to become a painter at the age of 5.
Hodgkin was educated in Long Island USA, before moving back to England to attend Eton and later Camberwell School of Art. Inspired by an art teacher, Hodgkin started buying Indian paintings as a teenager, after being introduced to the work at Eton. This was the start of a life-long passion for Indian painting and India in general. Hodgkin made multiple trips to India during his life and collected Indian painting avidly. The study of India entered his art in many forms, but most obviously in colour. Hailed as a master colourist Hodgkin’s works, whether viewed as abstract or figurative are renowned for their colourful vivacity. Although perhaps there was also an element of escapism to his travelling, “I think my main reason for going back to India”, he told David Sylvester in 1984, “is because it is somewhere else.”
His first exhibitions in Britain, at a time just preceding the invasion of Abstract Expressionism, were commercial failures although his work was often praised by critics “His work has none of the drabness which is too frequently associated by modern artists with pretensions to intellect”, Edward Lucie-Smith writes “…this is painting to be enjoyed – that is, providing your idea of enjoyment doesn’t rule out the occasional need to think.”
Although never far from praise, Hodgkin never fitted neatly into any school or group. Many of his works feature minimal brushstrokes, or expressionistic colour fields, however Hodgkin always claimed to be figurative. Using colours and forms to capture emotion rather than realism, Hodgkin’s titles often give his cloaked subjects away. Often named simply after a place or person- “Mr and Mrs E.J.P” (1972-1973) “After Dinner at Smith Square” (1980-1981) “Mr and Mrs Terence Conran (1978-1980) "In the Bay of Bengal” (2017) throughout his career Hodgkin obsessed after moments and memories that he poured over, often for years, till a picture emerged. His ability to capture a sense of emotional memory made him a favourite with writers such as Julien Barnes and Colm Toibin, but his aloofness and lack of place in the art scene frustrated interviewers and categorists. W.S. Di Piero wrote: “By the 1970s he’d developed a shape-shifting abstract style that could, if needed, seductively hint at representation, and his expressionist assertiveness was refined by a lyricism that in an instant could go bold or tender.”
During his very long and very successful career Howard Hodgkin had presentations in many high profile public galleries from the Barbican to the National Gallery, MOMA and the Irish Museum of Art, his work fitted into these institutions perfectly. Towards the end of his life he showed many times with Gagosian and Alan Cristea, with his ‘Last Paintings’ show at Grovesner Square Gagosian, London 2018 being a stand-out of the year and touching many.
Hodgkin died in 2017 on the day his show at National Portrait Gallery ‘Absent Friends’ was hung. He died in the middle of a creative streak, painting with long brushes, held up from his wheelchair by his assistants. He was already pulling big prices, but posthumously his paintings fetched way over the estimate. Not only a painter, but an avid printmaker, Hodgkin was a slow, but prolific artist. His work now reliably fetches large sums at auctions and his reputation, built on years of critical success, remains a dominant force in the art world.