Studio visit: Hugo Wilson

The British artist discusses the influence of Old Masters on his own practice through works offered in Remastered, a curated sale exploring the dialogue between centuries

Hugo Wilson describes himself as an ‘unashamed magpie’. The London-based artist is well known for borrowing images and techniques from Old Masters — Titian’s Rape of EuropaRubens’ Fall of the Rebel Angels — and mixing in contemporary references to create dramatic new works that nevertheless ‘seem to retain some of the essence’ of the original.

By way of example he shows us a new, eight-metre charcoal work, below, which blends a multitude of genres and styles — notably Japanese woodblock prints. ‘It’s about taking things from a thousand different sources, deconstructing them, reworking them, refiguring them,’ he says in his studio. 

Hugo Wilson’s new eight-metre charcoal work, which he produced in his studio during lockdown

Hugo Wilson’s new eight-metre charcoal work, which he produced in his studio during lockdown

Referencing Remastered, a curated online sale that explores the dialogue between contemporary works and Old Masters, Wilson is happy to draw comparisons between his own, as yet untitled work and Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s Adoration of the Magi, below. Wilson’s monumental new drawing is similarly congested. 

‘There’s a Dutch word, Wimmelbilderbuch  [literally, “teeming picture book”], which was basically the Where's Wally  of the 16th century, and essentially means “very busy”,’ he explains.

Classical rules of composition are central to his practice. ‘I often use big lines and then reduce them away to create almost arbitrary pieces of geometry. Or I’ll put two lines or a triangle, but they don’t ever feel out of place because this kind of narrative device is cemented in people’s minds.’

Wilson also notes parallels between his work and Jacopo da Ponte’s The Agony in the Garden — specifically the Italian artist’s use of a halo to create drama. ‘If you look around the elephant seal [in my work], the holy light is exactly the same,’ he explains.

 ‘A lot of historical references are simply practical,’ he continues. ‘Others are more considered. When you put a hundred things over the top of each other, you’ve kind of got Hokusai breakdown, mash-up house party.’

Wilson initially chose his studio space because it was ‘big enough and close to home’, but he’s now been there for five years, and ‘loves it’.

‘Whether it’s composition or chiaroscuro, there's an important noise that is made by certain works of art that vibrate with us’

Today he is driven by the need for narrative and ideology — the ‘human need to believe’, as he puts it — as well as a belief that art should make you ‘quietly contemplate and reconsider what it is that you maybe hadn’t reconsidered or what it is that you thought was right’.

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A work of art has to resonate, he says. ‘Whether it’s composition or chiaroscuro, there’s an important noise that is made by certain works of art that vibrates with us. Rothko does it, as well as Caravaggio.’

Remastered: Contemporary Art and Old Masters is online, 21-30 July