When Howard Hodgkin died in March, aged 84, the British art world lost one of its greatest talents. His extraordinary, luminous paintings characterised by bold, liquefied colour and abstract forms, for which he won the Turner Prize in 1985 and a knighthood in 1992, earned him international renown.
What is less known is that he was a collector of old things, not just rare Persian carpets and ceramics from the Ottoman Empire, but also more everyday objects: flags, chairs, mirrors, even a quilt made by Victorian primary-school children. ‘Howard did not save the money he earned. He bought objects,’ says Antony Peattie, a music writer and Hodgkin’s partner of 33 years.
Collecting was a passion and a serious business. He kept auction catalogues and a tape measure on his bedside table. ‘If he really fell in love with something it was called a “must have” or an MH and marked on the catalogue, and then he tended to go for it.’
In the Bay of Naples, 1980-82, oil on panel (not in the sale) CREDIT: WWW.BRIDGEMANART.COM
Hodgkin kept his paintings in his studio and his collection in his home (they were next door to each other). And Hodgkin’s home – a majestic four-storey Georgian house, tucked down a side street in Bloomsbury, London – is a remarkable insight into his mind.
Everything he ever valued was kept around him, arranged in a very particular way. Kitchen plates, mostly plain white, are on display in what looks like an open cupboard but is, in fact, a fireplace (‘I don’t approve of kitchen cupboards. You just put things in them you don’t want,’ he once said).
In the sitting room, a 17th-century carpet fragment is grouped with a 19th-century bellows, a 17th-century Mogul inlaid chest and a minimalist bowl by the 20th-century potter Lucie Rie. Objects are not simply put together, they are made into something.
Included in the auction of his possessions are a fragment from the 17th-century Von Hirsch ‘garden carpet’ (estimate: £80,000-£120,000); a 1960s Lucie Rie bowl (£1,500-£2,500); an early-17th-century Indo-Portuguese fall-front cabinet (£20-000-£30,000); and a c. 19th-century bellows (£1,200-£1,800) CREDIT: EAMONN MCCABE
‘When I came back from the funeral the house was so full of Howard. Everything that he bought was there, but he wasn’t,’ says Peattie. ‘It wasn’t a reassuring sensation to be surrounded by absence, and I knew I needed to take things away in order to face the reality of being me and not us.’
Next month, Sotheby’s will auction some 400 objects from the artist’s personal collection. Hodgkin always liked the idea of a sale, and besides, Peattie needs to raise money for the ‘letter of wishes’ – informal letters written by the artist outlining gifts to friends.
‘Having been short of cash through much of his early adult life, when his parents were unwilling to support his ambition to be an artist, Howard appreciated what money can do,’ says Peattie. ‘His wish was to give away large amounts of his money to people who need it.’
«Collecting was how Hodgkin relaxed. Painting was difficult and solitary, whereas collecting was convivial»
Items for sale will include paintings by artist friends such as Patrick Caulfield and Bhupen Khakhar, Indian paintings, Ottoman candlesticks, Islamic tiles and Italian marble. The auction will include things of great value, such as a Von Hirsch ‘garden carpet’ fragment (estimate: £80,000-£150,000) and Michael Rysbrack’s marble bust of King George II, circa 1740 (£80,000-£120,000); though a modern piece, Caulfield’s Sweet Bowl, is expected to be the most expensive (£300,000-£500,00).
But perhaps even more intriguing are the minor items – a collection of books by Agatha Christie (reading Christie, says Peattie, ‘was his way of freeing his mind so he could work on paintings in his head’), or a white fibreglass revolving chair on a trumpet base (£30-£50). Hodgkin chose every piece for a reason, says Jackie Coulter, senior consultant for carpets at Sotheby’s, and a friend of the artist’s.
‘Whether it was a painterly concern, a matter of scholarship or some other interest, it was feeding something.’ (Although she admits that the team at Sotheby’s have been floored by some of his choices – for example, an 1830s French paper doll. ‘I mean, why?’) Howard Hodgkin was born in 1932. His mother, Katharine, was the daughter of a lord chief justice; his father, Eliot, worked for ICI and was a keen plant collector.
Hodgkin’s studio, featuring a selection of Indian drawings and paintings from the 17th to 20th century (ranging from £300 to £15,000); five T & R Boote Burslem tiles together with a delftware tile section, 18th to 20th century (£100-£150 for the lot); and 19th-century chairs (from £400-£600 for a pine chair to £1,000-£1,500 for a pair of library chairs) CREDIT: EAMONN MCCABE
Hodgkin was educated at Eton (for a brief year; he ran away twice), where the art teacher, Wilfrid Blunt, introduced him to Indian art, and at the age of 14 he began to collect Indian miniatures. Throughout the 1970s, trading in antiques, specifically frames he found at junk shops and car-boot sales, supplemented his income as an artist and art teacher.
Frames became something of a signature, as he’d incorporate them into his paintings, spreading paint all the way to the outer rim. In 1984, Coulter went to work for him as an office assistant. Hodgkin was in the ascendant: he’d been chosen to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale, and the following year would win the Turner Prize.
He had recently met Peattie (his marriage to Julia Lane, with whom he had two children, ended in 1975). Coulter remembers the turquoise green of the walls (Grecian Spa 4 by Dulux); a more spartan home but a burgeoning collection; metal jugs full of tulips; suppers with friends (Peattie was the cook).
Collecting, she says, was how Hodgkin relaxed. The painting was difficult and inevitably solitary, whereas collecting was convivial, much more about relationships and conversations. She says he liked a good joke, which is why he paired Rysbrack’s bust of George II with the marble head of Louis XIV – a face-off between kings. He also liked to disrupt the rules of collecting.
«Reading Agatha Christie ‘was his way of freeing his mind so he could work on paintings in his head»
‘Collectors often focus on one thing,’ says Frances Christie, head of the modern and post-war British art department and senior director at Sotheby’s, ‘whereas he combined different objects, ages, geographies.’ There is a lightness of spirit, too, in his favourite motifs: palm trees – which crop up in all sorts of places, on carpet fragments, or carved into the frame of an 18th-century mirror – and elephants.
Hodgkin always denied he was an abstract painter. ‘I paint representational pictures of emotional situations,’ he said. Remembered things – sea, sky, the side of a whitewashed building –melt into each other. ‘He abstracted his experience of people, places and things,’ says Christie.
His paintings are powerful because they are based on real people, specific events. ‘And that’s what’s special about walking around his home – when you see the objects, the pairings, the myriad of jostling colours and patterns, you understand his paintings even more.’
The auction will take place at Sotheby’s on 24 October