Each time I walk into Howard Hodgkin’s studio it takes a few seconds for my eyes to get used to the light. The white walls and translucent glass ceiling give the studio the same ‘glancing, slightly dematerialised’ quality Hodgkin said he sought in his paintings. In an interview a few years before his death in 2017, he described the light in the studio as like an envelope. It’s a good description. Whatever the time of day or the weather outside, the light falls flatly and evenly. It wraps itself around you and casts no shadows.
Some of the works on the studio walls are covered by large linen canvases that could be mistaken for paintings with their backs turned to you and their stretchers showing. Hodgkin gave up painting on canvas at the beginning of the 1970s because he felt that the material sagged and warped after prolonged work. Wood maintained its qualities over time and ‘answered back’. It was more resistant, more independent, and it didn’t matter to Hodgkin if he was using an old chopping board, a bit of timber found on the street or an expensive antique frame. The choice of support depended on what he was trying to recover and convey, as well as its relationship to scale, or what he used to call a ‘likely proportion’. He always worked from memory and thought of himself as a painter of ‘emotional situations’.
The linen canvases in the studio acted as screens or coverings, allowing him to focus on a single work without distraction. In a short unpublished text, he wrote that the screens were initially used to conceal pictures that were ‘too large and unwieldy to move without outside help’. Soon he realised that they also allowed for both a ‘total detachment from looking at an image’ and a ‘fresh view of what has been concealed’. Hodgkin painted very slowly, and a painting that might appear quite simple could take him years to finish. This was partly because of uncertainty, but it was also because much of the labour took place in the periods between mark-making. Often he would sit on one of the chairs arranged around the studio, making mistakes in his head so as to avoid making them in the work. He also spent a great deal of time in his studio reading Agatha Christie novels – he liked to start at the end and read the chapters from last to first.
Hodgkin’s studio is at the back of his house in Bloomsbury, near the British Museum. His partner, Antony Peattie, still lives there. It began life as a stable yard, then was roofed over in the 19th century to become a dairy. Eighteenth-century maps show that the site was originally called Nags Head Yard. Some of the old brick archways through which horses and livestock passed remain visible, as does a barely perceptible signpost, carved in brick, which directs you to Great Russell Street. In the early 1970s, Lord Snowdon used the space to make motors for Chairmobiles wheelchairs. In the late 1980s, Nicholas Serota, then the director of the Whitechapel Gallery, heard that the site was up for sale and advised him to buy it. The studio was finished in 1991 at a cost of nearly £300,000.
These transformations from livestock to light industry to artist’s studio tell a story about London, too. When, in 1986, Hodgkin applied to add a storey to his house, one of the reasons he was granted planning permission was that so few people live in Bloomsbury; Camden Council didn’t want to risk him leaving. The studio also demonstrates his sense of what it meant to be an artist. Hodgkin unapologetically propagated the idea of the studio as a sacred site. In a way, his decision to conceal paintings in progress with linen canvases contributed to this, as did his reluctance to let anyone see him at work. His studio was never going to be anything but an isolated sanctuary.
Hodgkin was always deeply concerned with interiors, both in his work and in his life. He collected photographs of his ancestors’ homes – Southcote Lodge in Reading, for example, which belonged to his grandfather Stanley Howard Hodgkin (1860-1945), and Shelleys in East Sussex, which was owned by John Eliot Hodgkin (1829-1912) – and he remembered in detail rooms and the individuals and things that existed inside them. He played a parlour game with David Sylvester in which they challenged each other to remember the names and exact positions of paintings in small museums that they knew by heart. His memories of childhood interiors were so precise that they sometimes read like the entries of auction catalogues.
Hodgkin’s love of interiors was most forcefully expressed in his Bloomsbury house: he used to say that it was one of the best things he had ever done. Bruce Chatwin recalled him discussing tiny details of interior decoration and felt that the rooms he lived in were ‘more affected, more calculated and more dandified than anything I could dream of’. The result was alluring but also eccentric. Hodgkin had what his friend Paul Levy described as a ‘weird’ predilection for chairs – these included a Venetian gondola seat, a colonial chair and a plastic tulip armchair from the 1950s – which he was forever moving around. He made lampshades out of cheap white plastic shopping bags because they cast the most diffuse light. When the house was just an apartment on one floor, he covered a wall with hundreds of copies of Tommy and Grizel by J.M. Barrie, bound in red or green. This was in part because he liked the colours, but it was also to prevent street noise from coming in. The art dealer John Kasmin, who started showing Hodgkin’s work in his gallery in 1969, said that Hodgkin became incensed when he picked one of the books off the shelf and started to read it.
Perhaps the best sense of what Hodgkin’s interiors looked and felt like comes from a piece he wrote for Granta, published in 1999:
Like many other London living rooms, this one is divided by a square opening, with windows along one wall. The owners have said they want it to look like the inside of a hotel. It does. The accumulation of rather characterless objects and completely out-of-scale furniture, plus a rather morose colour scheme of dingy greens, adds to the effect. The busts and sculptured heads, also the numerous chairs and other places to sit, suggest a longing for company. It is a view which I always look forward to seeing again, as I sit at the table in the foreground, perhaps being offered tea and sympathy, a glass of champagne or something stronger. Interior views are certainly more comfortable to look at than those outside. You can sit back and relax with a drink in hand, with someone to talk to. And this room in particular, with its memento mori at the end, is so nicely impersonal.
The important word is ‘impersonal’, as if the room itself, together with its furnishings, paintings and objets d’art, were held between quotation marks, under the sign of the memento mori.
After walking through the house, the white of the studio is all the more pronounced. The painting that comes closest to representing Hodgkin’s studio is Matisse’s Red Studio (1911). The various objects depicted – canvases, sculptures, ceramics, plants, chairs (especially chairs) – are held together by and saturated in red paint, while the studio’s contours and furnishings are delineated in pale yellow. A.S. Byatt described it as the ‘paradisal brightness in the red cavern of the skull’; Hodgkin’s studio could be described in the same way, only the skull has been bleached.
Hodgkin was once asked why so many of the paint brushes in his studio were clean and unused and carefully arranged in pots. He said that he didn’t need so many and thought of them less as tools for painting and more as still lifes – they are now displayed in a Perspex box, which adds to this effect. It was only a passing comment, but it tells you something about the way he perceived the world, and saw it as art.