Modern & Post-War British Art

Howard Hodgkin and the Mystery of Mrs Burt

By Robin Cawdron-Stewart

I n October 2017, Sotheby’s were honoured to offer for auction a selection of works belonging to the late Howard Hodgkin, a painter who shaped the course of the British art scene and counted contemporaries – including David Hockney, Peter Blake and Patrick Caulfield – among his friends.

Friendship was always important to Hodgkin and this was showcased in one of the highlights of the sale – his 1960 painting Bedroom, which depicted the artist together with his wife Julia and a mysterious figure known only at the time only as ‘a Mrs Burt’.

HOWARD HODGKIN , BEDROOM , 1960. SOLD FOR £248,750 AT SOTHEBY’S LONDON, HOWARD HODGKIN: PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST , 24 OCTOBER 2017.

The Mrs Burt in question – Mrs Deborah Burt – was married to Thomas Burt, a contemporary of Hodgkin’s from his time at Corsham. The Bath Academy of Art, as it was formerly known, was one of the most progressive and forward-thinking art schools in the country and counted artists such as Richard Hamilton, William Scott, Peter Lanyon and Adrian Heath amongst its alumni and teaching staff. Many – including Adrian and Corinne Heath and James and Maureen Tower – were painted by Howard in the early 1960s.

FROM LEFT, HOWARD HODGKIN & DEBORAH BURT (NEE DIXON); HOWARD HODGKIN AND THOMAS BURT (SECOND FROM LEFT) TOGETHER WITH FRIENDS FROM CORSHAM; HOWARD HODGKIN AND FRIENDS.

Burt was one of Hodgkin’s closest friends of these early years, attending his wedding to Julia Lane at St Mary’s Church, Wargrave on 16 April 1955, and asking Howard to act as his best man when he married his fiancé Deborah soon after.

HOWARD HODGKIN & THOMAS BURT ON BURT’S WEDDING DAY, WITH HODGKIN ACTING AS BEST MAN.

The couples holidayed together, visiting Paris (the location where the Bedroom painting was set), taking a small Box Brownie camera with them, and corresponded at length, sending postcards illustrating 18th-century ceramics and intricate Indian miniature paintings.

HOWARD HODGKIN, UNTITLED (CHRISTMAS CARD) , GIVEN BY HODGKIN TO THE BURTS. ESTIMATE £800–1,200. TO BE INCLUDED IN MADE IN BRITAIN , 20 MARCH 2018.

As friends do, the pair also exchanged gifts, often on Hodgkin’s part in the form of works of art, including a print, drawings or a tile (most likely made whilst at Corsham using the kiln room that Tower and Lanyon would also use). Burt became an art teacher in the North of England but continued to write to Howard and Julia, promising to visit when they were next down in Bath.

FROM LEFT: HOWARD HODGKIN, MRS DEBORAH BURT , 1953. ESTIMATE £500–700; TILE , ESTIMATE £400–600; UNTITLED (OLD LADY WALKING AWAY) , CIRCA 1950-59, ESTIMATE £600–800. ALL TO BE INCLUDED IN MADE IN BRITAIN, 20 MARCH 2018.

In Made In Britain (20 March, London) we are excited to be offering four fascinating works by Hodgkin from Burt’s collection that provide a glimpse into this very personal friendship – a small painting by Hodgkin done as a Christmas card; the aforementioned tile (which displays the influence of both William Scott and James Tower at Corsham); one of Hodgkin’s earliest recorded prints and a small drawing of Mrs Deborah Burt herself. Together they paint a very special picture of Howard Hodgkin, and provide us with a personal insight into the private life of one of Britain’s greatest painters.

THOMAS BURT, HOWARD & JULIA HODGKIN SITTING BESIDE THE RIVER SEINE IN PARIS.

Made in Britain will take place in London on 20 March 2018.

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