Lives of the Artists is part of a series of interviews with artists. Based on Giorgio Vasari’s biographies of artists of the Renaissance, I hope to get an insight into what inspires these artists, what makes them different, their loves and passions and their mistakes and memories. The second in this series is with the painter Howard Morgan.
After having several long and amusing conversations with Howard over the summer for this interview, I was just about to post it when I heard the sudden, shocking and very sad news that Howard had died quickly and without warning on the 22nd September.
One day he was full of life and gossip; chatting about a new painting he was undertaking at Blenheim Palace, teasing me with titbits of conversations he had with the Queen and speaking with real enthusiasm about the future, and the next he was gone.
Published with permission of his wife Sarah, I have left the interview as it was, my small testament to his great prowess as a painter and as a talented, thoughtful and engaging man.
‘I have long worried that I would become tired of painting portraits. If I started boring myself I would inevitably turn off other people. So I try to create a bit of theatre, to entertain on the canvas’
Long before I was conscious of who Howard Morgan was, I grew up looking at his portrait of my mother when she was younger, alongside my uncle Beano and aunt Victoria (see below). I love this depiction of them, the informal poses and atmosphere created with the charcoal.
Born to non-artistic parents in northern Wales, Howard’s forged his own path in life; he has never been represented by a gallery (although he says he’s had ‘flirtations’). His unique and effervescent style has seen him become a highly successful society painter. The National Portrait Gallery owns eight works by him (including a portrait of Tom Stoppard, below) and, uniquely perhaps, he has painted three Queens – Queen Elizabeth II, the late Queen Mother and Queen Beatrice of the Netherlands.
Howard may have cracked the conundrum of what to do after Sargent. For over a century, portrait painters across the Western world have struggled with how to move on from the great American expatriate artist.
‘Sargent is such an enormous talent’ Howard tells me, ‘if you get too close to him it is like a moth to a flame, you get burnt’. ‘You can’t imitate him. After Giotto nothing happened until Masaccio, he floored his successors. I have great respect for Sargent but I am wary of his pull.’
Howard’s paintings have an aesthetic in which the style and status of his sitters is implicit but it is all rolled up into a grand theatrical and yet informal manner that is memorable and just plain fun.
Howard sets up his paintings as a literal piece of theatre – he creates backdrops for his sitters to star in. ‘I always paint with the sitters in front of me. I use lots of effects, painted backdrops, artificial lights and special effects, smoke and mirrors. Sometimes I overlay a portrait with huge theatrical effects as the sitter is ill at ease and so I try to create something out of nothing.’
What is unusual about Howard is that he doesn’t come from artistic stock. ‘My parents weren’t interested in art. My mother’s family were yeomen farmers from Warwickshire . My father was in the army and then after the war he became a teacher. I was born in north Wales and I am an only child.’
So how did he become a painter?
‘It was just something that came naturally to me. My mother claims that as I lay in my cot as a baby I always had my hand in the air. She found it very peculiar. I can actually remember doing it. I swear I was looking, I was following the lines of the joins of the ceiling. Maybe I was teaching myself perspective!’
‘When I was in my pram I would rip the ribbons off the canopy and make shapes with them. My mother thought I was mad. There was serious talk of going to see a behavioral psychologist.’
‘But her mother persuaded her not to do anything and once I could hold a pencil I was off.’
‘I was drawing from a very young age. The earliest drawing I did was of a bicycle, perhaps I was eighteen months old. In those days the postman would come into your house and have a cup of tea. He was having a cup of tea with my mother and he saw me drawing in the corner and said ‘good god can you see what your son is doing’.
When Howard was at school his interest in art was almost derailed. ‘The art teacher claimed I was spoiling her class and threw me out. It was only when a new art teacher arrived that my oldest friend, the poet Martyn Ford, managed to get me back in. He took some of my drawings to the new teacher, who whisked me out of geography and back into art. My life could have ended up very differently if it wasn’t for that.’
After school, Howard studied art at Newcastle. In the 1960s the Newcastle Fine Art Department had made huge reputation for itself under the direction of Victor Pasmore and Richard Hamilton (both artists work now sells for six figure sums on the art market).
‘When I arrived, Newcastle saw itself as quite avant-garde. Yet it still had remnants of the ancien régime.
The key moment for me was when the stained glass painter Leonard Evetts found me in my second year and said ‘my boy I want to give you some lessons in painting’.
‘What Leonard didn’t know about the technical side of painting was not worth knowing about. He gave me a really serious education in all forms of painting, tempura, fresco, stretching, lining, making your own paint – the whole lot. He thought I needed some help, some direction. I am forever thankful to him’.
Howard loves to discuss painting and has a great knowledge of art history and piercing eye for the successes and failures inherent in a picture. ‘I had to study art history as part of my MA and the man that taught me, Ralph Holland, was a true gent who had an exquisite collection of old master drawings [sold at Sotheby’s in 2013]. We spent many hours on a Saturday afternoon drinking dry cherry and poring over his drawings collection.’
‘One day he asked me ‘what are you going to do when you leave here?’ and I idiotically replied ‘I am going to paint’ and he said ‘I know that. What are you going to paint?’
‘Before I could answer he said ‘I think you should be a portrait painter’. I suppose I did what I was told and he was right.’
How right he was. By the 1980s Howard was in hot demand in London. In 1982 Antonio Douro (now the Duchess of Wellington) asked him to paint murals for her dining room in Apsley House. A few years later Howard was asked to paint the Queen Mother, and then in 1988 he got a double commission, paid for by Unilever, to paint our monarch, the Queen, and the Queen of the Netherlands, to mark the 300th anniversary of the arrival of William of Orange and Mary in 1688 London (see below).
Fascinated, I ask him all about his sitting with the Queen.
‘The Queen and I had a really wild time together.’
‘I have written it all down, I have a memoir of sorts of this moment, but I feel like I should keep quiet about it while she is alive because it’s not fair.’
How many hours was he allowed to paint her for? ‘Not enough. I could have done with another sitting but the wheels of Buckingham Palace are tiresome.’
What does think of all the other paintings of the Queen? ‘The only one I really admire is the one by Amigoni which is in the Fishmongers Hall.’
What about Lucian Freud’s portrait of the Queen? ‘The thing I find difficult about Freud is that he can’t control the paint, the tones are terrible, sometimes they come out and hit you in the face and sometimes they fall out of place the other way. I think he found controlling a surface very difficult. In fact he couldn’t do it. I suspect when the great wheel of history grinds round it might relegate Freud. I don’t think he is out of the top drawer.’
In lockdown Howard was at home in Herefordshire painting fleeting landscapes in watercolour and a procession of daffodils, blue bells and poppies.
How long does it take him to paint a watercolour? ‘Well it’s rapid. If you have a sunrise or sunset how long do you have? Maybe 4 minutes. It can take up to an hour for a normal landscape.’
And what does he do with them?
‘Surprisingly I sell quite a lot on Instagram, which I find deeply puzzling as I wouldn’t buy anything from a photograph. My daughter says ‘come on dad it’s a different world’. Maybe my daughter is right, maybe it is the new world? I have no complaints so far. I am not going to stop them doing it.’
Finally I ask him what he loves to paint more than anything else?
‘I actually have a love-hate relationship with painting. I frequently struggle with painting, I can find it totally exhausting. But I was doing it before I could walk, talk or anything else. I have just done it forever.
‘It’s me, it’s what I do. And I haven’t finished yet.’
Very sadly, Howard didn’t get any more time to produce the work he was planning. But we can be thankful that he was able to paint what he did, that his early interest in art wasn’t derailed at school, that he took the right advice and pursued what he loved and what was meaningful to him. To see a more complete body of his work Howard’s website can be found here http://www.howard-morgan.co.uk/
If you enjoy my posts you can subscribe to the blog by following the link at the bottom of the page and you will be sent an email when I post something new.