Islamic Art

Howard Hodgkin: A Life-Long Passion for Collecting

By Paul Moorhouse

‘I have absolutely no desire to collect my own work, but do have what with age seems an almost unquenchable thirst for acquiring other things to look at.’ For an artist famously averse to discussing his motives, this statement, which he made in 1994, ranks among his most forthright. Howard Hodgkin had a life-long passion for collecting. It started early, when as a child he began assembling what would eventually become an extensive and important collection of Indian art. But Hodgkin did not stop there. Over the course of seven decades, his interests widened impressively. A glance at the inventory of the estate he left after his recent death in March 2017 reveals a bewildering diversity. In addition to Indian art, his eclectic taste extended to the wider field of Islamic art; modern British paintings; tapestries, rugs and carpets; sculpture; prints; furniture; antiquities; ceramics and glass; and, not least, a library, situated under his studio, containing an astonishing array of archives and books. As Hodgkin himself attested, his thirst for ‘things’ seemed boundless.


This raises an interesting question, namely the extent to which Hodgkin’s activities as a collector intersected with, and perhaps reflected, his artistic preoccupations. It is well known, not least from the artist’s own lips, that his life and work were closely enmeshed. He observed, ‘My entire life is in my paintings.’ With memory as his abiding subject, his art is essentially and distinctively autobiographical. Beginning always with a vivid visual impression, he strived indefatigably to recreate pictorial equivalents for personal, often intensely private, experiences. From meetings with friends to erotic encounters, and convivial dinner parties to glimpsed landscapes, his journey through the world provided an inexhaustible mine of material.

While memory was Hodgkin’s touchstone, he grasped, however, that literal description alone could not provide a complete account of the subjects he addressed. Our interactions with people, places and things are not only visual, and memories never simply mental pictures. Our internalised impressions are refracted through feeling. Hodgkin was profoundly attuned to that human condition, and in actively recalling past events his work engaged with what he described as ‘emotional situations’. The feelings he associated with particular moments were his quarry. But how to make visible the memory of a feeling, something that is without substance? In creating works of art that seek to give tangible, objective form to these evanescent experiences, Hodgkin recognised that his involvement with collecting ‘other things’ had an important bearing. Acknowledging his insatiable urge to collect, he said about collecting Indian Art that ‘though the pictures haven’t influenced me very much, I think the art of collecting certainly has’. As this observation implies, the connection between the collector and the artist is a complex one, being at once oblique and profound.


Hodgkin’s awareness of the presence of ‘things’ was evidently deeply rooted, and, from the outset, linked with his artistic aspirations. Born in 1932 in Hammersmith, London, his background was by his own account ‘fairly but not very wealthy middle class’.5 His father was a manager at ICI and a passionate collector of plants, his mother a botanical illustrator. Between them, they assembled a comfortable, well-furnished home enlivened by works of art. One of these caught their young son’s eye: a ‘doubtful’ watercolour by David Cox hanging over the mantelpiece. Whatever its merits, this work is said to have encouraged Hodgkin’s resolution, aged five, to become a painter. After being sent to boarding school, an experience he hated, his grandmother would send him small antique objects to assuage his unhappiness. As a result, old keys and eighteenth century watch faces were among the first objects that he collected, and, touchingly, they had an emotional significance.

Following the outbreak of war Hodgkin was evacuated to the USA, and with his mother and sister spent three years living with a family in Long Island. By contrast with his experience as a school boarder, this was an idyllic period. There were visits to the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, during which his desire to paint was deepened by first hand acquaintance with the work of Matisse, Picasso, Vuillard and Stuart Davis. That formative involvement with these museums’ outstanding collections of modern painting was complemented by a growing personal acquisitiveness. ‘Aunt Bette’, in whose house they stayed, was a collector of American antiques. The trips to museums and antique shops that they made together implanted a fascination with objects in glass cases, and he made his first purchases: ‘little things, all of which were complete rubbish.’ Nevertheless, a seed had been sown.


Hodgkin’s conversion proper, the moment when he began consciously to assemble objects that attracted him, occurred while he was a pupil aged fourteen at Eton. Hodgkin disliked the school and was not there long, but his relationship with the art master Wilfred Blunt was defining. Blunt possessed a collection of Indian and Persian paintings, and also a small glass case in which he would display selected objects. As well as showing these to his pupils, he also introduced them to exquisite works of art belonging to the Royal Collection in nearby Windsor Castle. One of these was a drawing of a chameleon made in 1612 by Ustad Mansur, the celebrated Mughal painter and court artist, which made a deep impression. Hodgkin’s desire to collect Indian art dates from that time.

His first acquisition was a seventeenth century Indo-Persian picture from Aurangabad, a charming if modest work that depicted figures sitting in a garden, drinking wine. While subsequently he came to doubt the painting’s quality, certain collecting traits were established. The first of these was an attraction to scenes of everyday life, a characteristic of much of Hodgkin’s mature collection of Indian art. Another was the frank immediacy and vitality of the subject, a quality that would also be an enduring preoccupation. Perhaps most important of all was that his decision to acquire it was based on judgements that were primarily visual and emotional. The look of a work of art was intimately related to the feelings – the unique excitement – that it aroused. These would be the principal characteristics of Hodgkin’s outlook as a collector. Significantly, they also encapsulate his ethos as an artist.

In collecting Indian art, Hodgkin by his own admission followed his instincts rather than relying on personal scholarship. That said, the discriminating eye that he developed was nurtured by close friendship with experts in the field. These included Robert Skelton, who was an assistant keeper in the Indian department of the Victoria and Albert Museum when they met, and Hodgkin’s companion during his first visit to India in 1964; Cary Welch, whom Hodgkin got to know in 1959 when Welch was an assistant keeper of Islamic art at the Fogg Museum, and who later held positions at Harvard Art Museum and the Metropolitan Museum; the collector Robert Erskine, whose wide-ranging interests were evidently an inspiration; and Terence McInerney, an expert in Indian paintings credited by Hodgkin with opening his eyes to Mughal art, who became the subject of two portraits by the artist.


In terms of scope, Hodgkin acquired paintings ranging across the Mughal period and into the 20th century, in which the principal schools (Mughal, Deccani, Pahari and Rajasthani) are represented. While mythological subjects are in evidence, Hodgkin’s preference for a human presence and diverse activity in a variety of settings is a dominant linking thread. Palace, court and garden scenes, tiger hunts, processions, portraits, and, not least, erotic encounters, are recurrent subjects. Animals – especially elephants – are also found in abundance. Collectively, the pulse of life and the celebration of living are abiding themes, perhaps unsurprisingly given that Hodgkin’s own art was animated by the same imperatives. This, however, is not to imply any obvious formal connection, indeed the differences are in some ways striking.

Hodgkin felt that in Indian art, drawing was enormously important. As a result, ‘all is clear and, if not exact, at least concrete’, 8 qualities he attributed to the linearity of the imagery. Contrasting with that forthright visual quality, the expression of emotion is indirect. In Hodgkin’s paintings, however, the opposite is true. In order to convey emotion as directly as possible, the subject is for the most part embodied by sensuous brushwork whose primary significance is expressive. Nowhere is the difference more evident than in the evocation of sexual encounters. In Indian paintings, lovemaking is depicted explicitly. In Hodgkin’s art, the erotic is no less tangible, but suggested obliquely and as if glimpsed. Distinct in terms of appearance, these two worlds are nevertheless linked at a deeper level of sensibility, in which familiar experience is represented with an affecting intensity.


With Indian painting its beginning, the diverse nature of Hodgkin’s collection as a whole is best understood in terms of his observation, ‘I have always been fascinated by the relation of people to things.’  That idea frames one of Hodgkin’s earliest paintings, Memoirs 1949, which he completed at the age of seventeen. This small gouache evokes the memory of the return visit he made to Long Island in 1947, and depicts the youthful artist listening to Aunt Bette as she lies on a couch. As if defining the path he would take as an artist and collector, the two figures are presented surrounded by objects. Hodgkin felt that individuals express themselves in terms of the things they possess, and in the physical and psychological relationships that are formed. That idea permeates the picture, its charged atmosphere arising from the interaction of the figures with the physical fabric of their shared situation. At its centre, Hodgkin’s gaze is fixed upon the decorative ring worn by his mentor. Evoking the fascination exercised by ‘other things’, the painting is something of a personal manifesto.

By developing his collection beyond Indian painting into the wider area of Islamic art, and beyond into decorative art and furniture, Hodgkin actively explored the relationships between people, objects and their setting. In all these fields of collecting there is an evident similar preoccupation with possessing things that he found beautiful, interesting and evocative. However, whereas his Indian paintings would demand his attention, ‘ask too many questions’ 10 and, for that reason, tended not to be displayed in full view, with the other objects he collected there is a evident desire to embellish his surroundings. That different ethos was rooted in a wish to experience these things directly and continuously, interacting with them, arranging and rearranging them - bringing them, as it were, to life. Echoing his great grandparents whose eclectic collection accommodated a fascination with English tiles, Hodgkin’s extensive holdings of Islamic art included tiles from Persia, Turkey and Damascus from the 13th century onwards. Mostly fragments from original expansive settings, these individual pieces would be brought together in arresting wall arrangements that ranged across period and style.


The sumptuous floral patterns and exquisite calligraphy in which their creators excelled has parallels in Hodgkin’s own paintings and prints, where abstracted leaf shapes can occasionally be glimpsed amidst swirling brush marks. But a deeper connection lies in Hodgkin’s particular practice of combination, a collage-like method that underpins his idiosyncratic way of hanging these collected objects and also his own art. In both, discrete fragments of visual sensation are amalgamated into fields of energetic activity, with emotion and material finding a unique resolution.

There is a sense that Hodgkin approached the display of his collection in the rooms he occupied as he would the making a painting. Hung vertically, carpets and tapestries formed an almost abstract setting for sculptures, carved reliefs, framed paintings, objects d’art, mirrors and furniture. As in his paintings, he arranged discrete elements, creating a complex space for the eye to inhabit and a profusion of arresting relationships. Hodgkin acknowledged the connection between collecting and making art. Speaking of forming his own collection, he noted, ‘one is continually making... value judgements’. Reflecting on a lifetime engaged in that activity, he concluded: ‘to collect is...a way of making art your own, but it’s also a way of making art; a collection in the end is a work of art.’

Paul Moorhouse curated Howard Hodgkin AbsentFriends at the National Portrait Gallery, London, 23 March–18 June 2017.

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