The paintings of Howard Hodgkin (1932-2017) are intense and beautiful things. Ablaze with jewel-like colour, often intimate in scale, and typically painted on wood – many incorporating heavy, painted frames – they are utterly distinctive, and fall neatly into no artistic movement or style. They are broadly autobiographical, and deeply evocative of places and people, but operate in their own abstracted language of colour and form. ‘I am a representational painter, but not a painter of appearances’, Hodgkin once said. ‘I paint representational pictures of emotional states’ (H. Hodgkin, quoted in E. Juncosa (ed.), Writers on Howard Hodgkin, London 2006, p. 104). He would sometimes work on a single picture for several years until it ‘returned’ the memory that sparked its creation, almost as if the painting were a magical object. Through the prismatic focus of Hodgkin’s remembering, his works glow with an extraordinary coalescence of sight and sensation, perception and passion.
The works in the Jeremy Lancaster Collection span seven decades of Hodgkin’s career, displaying the full range of his achievement. The earliest – painted when Hodgkin was just a teenager, and the first work documented in his catalogue raisonné – is Tea Party in America, 1948 (lot 19). Much like his breakthrough interior scene Memoirs, 1949, it sees Hodgkin working in an esoteric figurative mode that anticipates the concerns of his mature practice: people gathered round a table fracture into zones of graphic pattern and hard, cloisonniste outline, set within the intricate textures of their surroundings. Two enormous, angular hands in the foreground – seemingly the young painter’s own – bring the viewer directly into the room (and into what looks like a rather overwhelming social milieu). The scene’s forceful rendering is alive with bright colour, betraying the early chromatic influence of the Abstract Expressionists. Hodgkin saw their work on his early trips to America, where he visited his aunt in Long Island; this work was painted during his second spell there. He learned vital lessons from the bold hues and emotional grandeur of works by de Kooning and Pollock, and would deliver an electric jolt to the world of post-war British painting in the years to come.
In Mrs C, 1966 (lot 41), a lively transitional work, Hodgkin’s daring vision of portraiture begins to emerge. The subject is the wife of Bernard Cohen, a leading British abstractionist and friend of the artist. Depicted without recourse to figurative means, Mrs Cohen’s presence instead takes the form of round, interlocking shapes in lavender, yellow and pale green, partly enclosed in dark emerald line, and set among a red and blue field of Hodgkin’s trademark dappled brushmarks. These rhythmic blotches have echoes of the work of Édouard Vuillard, whom Hodgkin greatly admired: the French painter’s ‘Intimist’ scenes conjure a dense psychological fabric from interiors and figures woven with similarly intricate, mottled patterns. In Mrs C, Hodgkin likewise creates an intimacy between painting and viewer by inviting close scrutiny of the picture’s surface and subject, finding emotive expression in colour and texture rather than in physical likeness.
It was not until the 1970s that Hodgkin began to see major commercial success. Bombay Sunset, 1972-1973 (lot 5) is a standout work from this period, and bears exceptional provenance: it was once owned by the collector and patron E.J. Power, and in 1984 was featured in Hodgkin’s British Pavilion exhibition for the 41st Venice Biennale. India was a wellspring of inspiration for Hodgkin, who visited the country annually from 1964, and had collected Indian miniature paintings since his schooldays. Bombay Sunset, deeply felt and richly redolent of place, is one of his masterpieces. ‘Life takes precedence over art or artifice, just as it does in the Indian painting he so admires’, wrote John McEwen in the Venice show’s catalogue. ‘This too is a fusion in which form, however multifarious, conveys the wanderings of the emotions. What could be more intrinsically expressive of such feelings than the clouds among the horizon of Bombay Sunset? What view could be more immediately recognisable, and yet so minimally contrived and described? The threatening clouds, the depth of space, the coming night, each suggestion made by marks not one of which is descriptive in itself. And yet no one, surely, could fail to identify with its mood of loneliness and regret – those molten clouds (how meltingly they convey oppressive heat) about to submerge the hopeful yellow of the day, the westward escape, the radiant grounds for optimism’ (J. McEwen, ‘Introduction’, Howard Hodgkin: Forty Paintings, exh. cat. British Pavilion, XLI Venice Biennale, 1984, p. 11).
Bombay Sunset features a broad, flat, orange-painted frame. The wooden surround becomes an integral part of the picture, making Hodgkin’s act of memory into an act of theatre. As Andrew Graham-Dixon has observed, ‘The habit of bracketing images within dense borders of patterned or monochrome paint … often turns the paintings into views through or into. It is a device that lends them much of their intimacy. The density of Hodgkin’s painted frames casts them in the role of buffer states, shields of colour erected to shelter the fragile, evanescent images at the heart of a painting from too close and immediate a contact with the world beyond the painting. It also turns his pictures into conduits, leading into private or secret worlds’ (A. Graham-Dixon, Howard Hodgkin, London 1994, p. 74). Artificial Flowers, 1975 (lot 38), formerly held in the collection of Leslie Waddington, takes us into just such an inner sanctum. Within its faceted black frame, it displays a vivid still-life that itself seems to contain a pair of further frames – pictures within a picture – amid malachite spots, cool planes of blue, and exuberantly floral arcs of orange and red. While profoundly sincere in his work, Hodgkin was not above self-referential play. Artificial Flowers unfolds a formal game in a remembered space of scintillating, sumptuous colour.
In Lawson, Underwood & Sleep, 1977-1980 (lot 20), a highlight of the artist’s major 2017 retrospective Howard Hodgkin: Absent Friends at the National Portrait Gallery, Hodgkin’s painting reaches its most vibrant and sensuous. George Lawson was the partner of the dancer Wayne Sleep: the two had been introduced to one another by David Hockney – another friend and subject of Hodgkin’s – who also worked on an unfinished double portrait of the pair from 1972-1975, now in the collection of the Tate. Hodgkin met Nick Underwood, a friend of the couple, in 1977, on a visit to Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Completed on a large scale over three years, Lawson, Underwood & Sleep’s complex veils, bursts and lenses of colour build a bright, energetic picture of these overlapping relationships. Slanted bars of red encounter white flashes among dots of citric yellow; bright orange blotches hover over the whole, spilling out of a green and yellow frame. The painting’s aura is of warm reminiscence, tempered, as ever, by the elegiac edge of Hodgkin’s evocation of a moment lost to the past.
Apart from India, it was Venice that held the most central place in Hodgkin’s art and life. The same shifting, watery atmosphere that inspired Canaletto and Turner – perhaps the only British painter to whose brilliant, sun-struck colours Hodgkin’s can justly be compared – provided a perfect subject for his art of evanescence. When forty of his paintings were shown there for the 1984 Biennale, he hung them on walls painted his favourite eau de nil green to diffuse the shimmering light of the lagoon outside. Venice Sunset, 1989 (lot 6) makes use of that same liquid hue, employing audaciously simple strokes to convey the city’s ethereal radiance with breathtaking clarity. A dark orange sun hangs bruised in the sky, and the frame flames with Turner-esque fire. For Hodgkin, Venice came to represent a state of mind as much as a physical location. Here, as in all his greatest works, he distils his way of looking into a picture that is fervently personal yet universal in its appeal, a dispatch from private memory that is immediate and eloquent in its total, aching beauty.
In his later years, Hodgkin began to work with a greater economy and immediacy. While precise memories remained his starting point, his paintings underwent less arduous revision and reworking; he would instead spend a longer time premeditating his marks, which became more open and urgent. Flowerpiece, 2004-2005 (lot 43) exemplifies this late blooming of clarity. Paired swathes of graphite and dove grey float freely before a billowing field of green, red and peach, which flourishes over the broad painted frame. The effect is almost pastoral, as evocative of a sunlit summer garden as of subtle human communion. A lifetime of looking and longing can be felt in this fluid and tranquil space. ‘Obviously, my language of forms has far more than a physical purpose,’ Hodgkin once said. ‘Alone in my studio, working on my pictures, more than anything, I long to share my feelings’ (H. Hodgkin, 13 March 1995, in J. Elderfield and H. Hodgkin, ‘An Exchange’, in Howard Hodgkin Paintings, London 1995, p. 80).