As we prepare for his 12th exhibition at the gallery, Ken took time out of his busy schedule to discuss Ken Howard: A painter’s journey with Researcher, Rachel Boyd Hall.
15th November 2016
The areas or streets of London that feature in your work have changed quite dramatically from the industrial environment that inspired you to become a painter, for example, Railway Sidings at the Plymouth Museum and Art Gallery, painted in the 1950s. Have the locations changed to reflect your life and surroundings or are you interested in different aspects of the city now?
My general philosophy is to paint what’s outside your door. When I was young I painted the City around St Paul’s and won the Lord Mayor’s Art Award in 1966, but now I paint more locally in Chelsea and Kensington. In fact I’ve been given the nickname ‘High Street Ken’.
Have you always been drawn to paint the Thames or did your time in Venice inspire you?
I’ve always painted the Thames, as London functions around the river.
I painted Thames Sparkle (cat. no. 12) from the Hungerford bridge (Hungerford pedestrian & Golden Jubilee Bridge looking towards the north bank and Whitehall Court). I was walking across and saw the light on the water. Light is my main motivation and when I see contre-jour, which made the water sparkle, I want to paint it.
In an article for The Artist, you mentioned Corot as one of your greatest influences and recalled that he said the best times to paint are first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening. You’ve included two beautiful depictions of the corner of Old Brompton Road (cat. no.s 1 & 2, opposite Brompton Library), in morning and afternoon light; what drew you to this composition and how do you decide what to paint in series?
In the middle of the day the sun is directly overhead, which means everything is tonally flattened – you must have contrast. I see this street every day, at different times of day and see how the light changes. I love long, thin canvases as they make you compose in a different way. You can’t compose according to what you know, it’s more of a challenge.
You also have an enduring association with Cornwall and discovered Mousehole, according to your autobiography, at the age of 15 on a cycling trip from London to Land’s End. Here you encountered ‘the epitome of an artist’ wearing a Borsalino-type hat (Nigel Lamborne) and looking into his studio declared ‘I’m going to be an artist like that one day’.
It was before I had gone to art school or been accepted by Hornsey School of Art. Later I bought that very studio and use it today.
See St Clement’s Studio, Mousehole (cat. no. 46), a magnificent interior with Dora.
You also have a family connection to Cornwall. Your sister, after time as a land girl in Penzance during the war, married a Mousehole fisherman who worked out of Newlyn – did this inspire your interest in harbours?
I’ve always loved harbours and shipyards, even before the railway yards. The first painting I ever sold was the Shipyard at Aberdeen, in about 1946 for 2 guineas to David Brown, a tractor manufacturer, who I later found out was the DB of Aston Martin (the legendary DB series of Aston Martins feature in James Bond films). I went to Aberdeen during the war to avoid the bombing. My uncle Jimmy was a long-distance lorry driver and would take me up as a boy. I also went to the Shipyards in Glasgow. I was painting properly from age seven and could drew and paint before I could write.
When I’d finished at the RCA, I wanted to paint an epic, ‘Fishermen of England’, and asked a Newlyn Trawlerman if I could go out with them, but the Captain said I should go on a liner boat first to see how I’d react. I was horribly sick and lost everything! The last thing I wanted to do when I got back to the harbour was to go on a boat again! A painting by Ken of Penzance Trawlers, is in the Parliamentary Art Collection.
My parents moved to Mousehole in the sixties and I visited them there. After coming to Cornwall for my sister’s wedding, my mother got ‘pixielated’ and decided to move there. When my father died, I bought my parent’s cottage for my mother and then when she moved I sold it to pay for St Clement’s Hall in the mid 1980s.
It took a long time, about ten years, before I felt I could see Mousehole in my own terms, because it’s such a beautiful village.
The fish markets in Newlyn and Venice are quite similar. Both share a particular red – in Venice in the curtains which keep out the sun and in Newlyn the boxes containing the fish. Cornwall is also the closest to Italy in terms of light and water. In west Cornwall you’re never more than two miles from the sea. My main interest in the harbour paintings was the Mousehole gap.
The change of tides make it very difficult to paint; London and Venice are relatively simple by comparison!
By the end of your third year at the Royal College of Art, you were awarded an Italian government Scholarship to study in Florence in 1958. Was that the first time you visited Italy?
Yes, I’d been to Spain before, but not Italy. I drove on a Lambretta from London to Florence and then from Florence to Palermo on a Vespa. I had so many crashes the insurance company wrote me a letter saying my insurance for next year was not invited!
Did you discover Venice at this time?
I went once to Venice then, but it was only later that I wanted to paint it. I used to go every September with Chrissie (in the 1980s) and then met Dora and bought a studio there. See Ken’s La Giudecca, Winter Morning at the Royal West of England Academy, Bristol.
Do you go at a particular time of year? In your writing you mention that ‘Whistler said Venice is a winter city’.
Venice is beautiful at all times of the year, its beautiful every time. The best time is May or September. I recently did an interview with an Italian newspaper, which they titled ‘The man in love with Venice’, which is true. When you leave, you always want to go back. I’ve been over fifty times and never get bored.
In your book, A Vision of Venice in Watercolour, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2002, you write about painting in Piazza San Marco (see cat. no.s 24, 27 & 29): ‘When you’re painting, it isn’t just a question of painting what you are seeing in front of you. What you are trying to do is find the whole feel of the subject, and part of this square is all the noise of people talking, and the sound of the musicians playing in Florian’s’. Has music always been important to you?
I have always had a great love of music. I learnt to play the piano until I was fifteen and could play Beethoven’s sonatas, but then had to choose whether to pursue it or go to Art School. I loved acting too. I also wanted to be a dancer. I used to go to the Humphrey Littleton Club on Oxford Street (later the 100 Club) to listen to Jazz and dance. There was no alcohol then; if you wanted a drink you had to go outside.
In your autobiography, particular types of music seem to provide a soundtrack to the different stages in your life; the Bonzo Dog Dooda band at the RCA and Modern Jazz in Italy, you even organised a music group at Harrow for students and ‘took them through the classics’. You also mention a magical experience while teaching at the Working Men’s College, in Camden…
I’d just finished teaching and heard music coming from the basement. I thought I must go down and listen to the college orchestra practicing and there was Vaughan Williams conducting the ‘Lark Ascending’, it must have been just before he died.
What’s your favourite piece of music?
Rachmaninoff’s 3rd piano concerto.
Do you listen to music while you paint?
I usually listen to music in the studio, but it has to be in the background, something like Vivaldi.
Rest of the world
You were commissioned Official Artist in Ireland by the Imperial War Museum in 1973, the first official British artist commissioned by the Imperial War Museum since the end of World War II and won a John Moore’s prize for Ulster Crucifixion, 1978, at Ulster Museum, and because of the success of your work, received subsequent commissions from other regiments in the British Army to travel with them: was this the beginning of your love of travel and of visiting several different countries a year to paint?
Yes, they seemed to like what I did and then I got to travel all over; Hong Kong, Borneo, Nepal, the Middle East, Oman and Canada. It also made me want to paint the studio. After travelling for six months, I woke up at home and saw the studio and wanted to paint it.
Your first trip to India was in the winter of 1982-1983, as a result of winning the Hunting Art Prize. Have you returned regularly since then?
The prize was £5,000 and I said to Chrissie, what shall we do with it and she said ‘lets not spend it on petrol and materials and things like that, let’s do something special’. And so we decided to go to India. I knew the Military Attaché in Delhi so we stayed with him and his wife and at the end held an exhibition in their house (everything sold except for the railway paintings which I wanted to take back with me). I’ve been back regularly since then. Outside of the cities, the countryside is completely unspoilt.
Can you tell us a bit about painting, Drying saris (cat. no. 31), which features on the cover of the exhibition catalogue?
I love Varanasi (I also love Udaipur) and this is where the women came to wash their saris and leave them to dry on the railings during the day.
‘Being a painter of light, India is perfect for me. The light is constant and predictable throughout most days, though the dawn affects and the displays of the setting sun never cease to surprise. Water reflects and enhances sunlight in a thousand different ways. Varanasi, lying as it does on the great Ganges river, is especially inspirational.’ Ken Howard in the film Painting Varanasi, Neale Worley, 2015.
The dates of your South African paintings suggest that you were there in 2014 (these were not included in your exhibition in 2015 which was solely London, Paris, New York); was this your first trip there?
I first went to South Africa for an exhibition at Everard Reid gallery in Johannesburg and then went back to visit a cousin of Dora’s. We also stayed in the oldest Dutch house in SA, in Stellenbosch.
I was taken by the skies in South Africa and natural forms like trees, where usually I’m drawn to architecture.
Your studio paintings, which are often detailed self-portraits including the life model, as well as still life objects, reference Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904) and Diego Velázquez (1599-1660). Have these always been important influences for you? And how did they inspire your exceptional triptych (cat. no. 50)?
The seated pose of my Self portrait with Fantin Latour was inspired by a photograph of the artist in his studio which I found and taped to the mirror in my studio.
In your autobiography you mention Maurice Cox went to see Velázquez’s Woman with a fan every week at the Wallace collection – because she was different each time – do you feel the same way about Las Meninas?
If I could own any painting in the world it would be Las Meninas at the Museo del Prado, Madrid. A great painting has a life of its own and says something different to you every time you see it.
The first time I went abroad, I hitch-hiked to Spain in 1952, really to see Goya, but I was converted by Velázquez. He was the greatest colourist ever. He used so many different greys (like Monet), with a bit of colour thrown in.
In Florence I went to the Uffizzi every week. Geniuses in painting are few and far between; Titan, Michelangelo and Leonardo, Velázquez and Goya, Rembrandt and Turner, and late Monet. You can’t really be influenced by genius, not directly. You can only wonder at it.
I’ve always wondered about the significance of Bitta’s silver (cat.no. 42)?
I used to borrow it from my neighbour, Birgitte “Bitta” Macmillan, Countess of Stockton (1943-2015, the first wife of Alexander Macmillan, 2nd Earl of Stockton), because she had very good silver.
Where else can people see your work, besides Richard Green and the Royal Academy in London?
As a member, I exhibit with the New English Art Club and the Royal Society of British Artists in London and at the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol.
Ken Howard: A painter’s journey opens at 147 New Bond Street on Wednesday 18th January 2017.
Photograph of Ken Howard by Dora Bertolutti Howard