Emerging talent Henry Hudson has a modern and tactile take on a classic narrative. Robert Bound recently visited the young artist’s London studio to learn more.


LONDON - Henry Hudson has long been intrigued by narrative – all forms of storytelling, he says. So perhaps it’s not surprising that the 32-year-old artist is particularly fascinated with one of the greatest stories told through art: William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress of 1733. The series of eight pictures are part morality tale part satire, tracing the life of Tom Rakewell as he squanders his fortune and falls into ruin. Following Hogarth’s dedication to detail and use of allegory, Hudson has reinterpreted the tale in The Contemporary Artist’s Progress – The Rise and Fall of Young Sen, forthcoming at Sotheby’s S|2 gallery.

As his material, Hudson has adopted Plasticine, more commonly marketed as an art product for children. He applies the clay-like substance to primed MDF board with brush, pen and pallet knife, almost in the manner of a bronze relief work. Built from layers of the rubbery, malleable substance, the resulting paintings are extremely tactile. As with one of his heroes, Frank Auerbach, Hudson’s pieces have a topography of their own.

Each of the ten works took him and his team of five assistants roughly two months to complete. “I live upstairs,” he says when I met him at his East London studio, “so it’s been intense. I don’t think my body and mind could handle another run of these!” 

Hudson_06_MediumHenry Hudson, Plate 6 (The Mask Falls Off – The After Party), varnished Plasticine on board, 2014.

20150212_Sothebys_HenryHudson_Shot-5_108_V2The artist heats the Plasticine before working with it. Photograph by Julian Broad.

Why do you find narrative so compelling?

I’ve always been fascinated with it. Not just narrative painting, but all forms of storytelling. I wanted to be an actor and seven years ago when I left art school at Central St. Martin’s, I did a lot of video work using intricate sets, so I’ve always been drawn to staging things.

What was the attraction of reimagining a rake’s progress?

The way that Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress is displayed at Sir John Soane’s Museum on layered sliding screens reinforces the notion of staging things – you have to peer behind the wooden panels. The works will also be displayed close to each other, so there will be a genuine sense of continuity. The real beauty of reworking A Rake’s Progress in a contemporary setting is to tell it as a modern-day morality tale in a world different from Hogarth’s.

Tell me about your unusual choice of plasticine as a material.

It is for children, really, but the stuff I use is actually called industrial Plasticine, so doesn’t come in such cute packaging. It is longer lasting and not affected by light and time, especially after I apply varnish. It comes in primary colours so the team and I use a kitchen hotplate to melt and mix them together to get any colour we like.

How did you hit on the idea of Plasticine?

The technique came about because I love impasto, the School of London painters and especially Frank Auerbach. I remember doing a study of a Philip Guston painting with this technique and I realised, “Oh, you can emulate oil paint,” but in something that’s one-eighth of the cost to make. You could say it was a happy accident.

Talk us through the Rise and Fall of your hero, whom you call Young Sen.

He starts as a nerdy Chinese student whose parents work at the Foxconn factory [the notorious facility where some Apple products are made], but he ends up skinny because of drugs, trendy because of the art world and married to a rich woman with a pet project of an art gallery. The wedding picture contains the most references to the art world – a Botticelli, William Blake’s God wearing a Damien Hirst diamond skull necklace, Prada Marfa and Raphael’s cherubs, who have American passports and American Express cards. Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights is in there and some Goya, too. There are a lot of faces staring back at you. They’re not pretty but they’re not meant to be.

Robert Bound is Culture Editor of Monocle.