Around 10 years ago, as part of a class topic on the human body, I introduced an unsuspecting class of 9 year-olds to the work of Peter Howson. Howson’s characters, all exaggerated muscles and bulging veins, hard-grafting hands and tortured eyes that told a thousand stories and asked as many questions were ripe for stimulus and so, over the course of a couple of art lessons, we used Howson’s paintings for reference and had a go at doing our own versions of them.
As they drew, I told the kids what I knew of the artist. At their age, I told them, he’d lived in another Ayrshire mining community just up the road from here, so there was an instant connection with that. Many of his paintings feature masculine, working class men, buckled and bent but never beaten by the forge or factory. There was still, at the time, a working forge in the town, not far from the school, where some of the children’s fathers worked.
Look at one of his pictures for long enough, I suggested, and you begin to hear the clang and clatter of their continual industry leaping forth from the thick, swirling oils. Not only that, but the pictures worked on different levels too. Howson had grown up in a religious family and lots of his paintings were full of hidden religious symbolism. Look at how many of his pictures, I pointed out, had flashes of brilliant light in the corner. The light from the forge, perhaps, or the moonlight, or the daylight poking out from underneath a bridge…or perhaps the light from God the saviour? The artist made no secret of his beliefs and the kids instantly understood the multi-layered meanings in the paintings we were studying, marvelling that painters could be so clever and devious and secretive.
Slowly but surely they all got drawn into Howson’s world, pastelling and painting their own versions as they listened to what I could tell them. As a teacher, it’s the greatest feeling in the world when the young people in front of you just get it and run with an idea as their own. I told them more, that he’d been the official war artist in Bosnia, seeing first-hand then painting the horrors of a war that never quite made it onto the front pages of our newspapers. He’d gone through difficult periods in his life but had made it through, scarred but intact. His work, the ‘real’ versions of the pictures we were using as stimulus sold for hundreds of thousands of pounds – (gasp!) – and, d’you know that singer David Bowie that I sometimes go on about? – well, he owns some of them.
By the end of the week, I had 25 or so fantastic pieces of art of a truly excellent and age-defying standard. I decided after school to seek out Howson online to tell him how his work had inspired this wee class of working class kids from the Ayrshire backwaters, reasoning that by including ‘Ayrshire’, it might pique his interest. It turned out that Howson was a bit of an internet recluse, but after a fair bit of searching – and this was Friday night with a good hour’s commute ahead of me – I did find a gallery in Glasgow that had his name attached to it, so I sent off a speculative email – “I wonder if you could perhaps let Mr Howson know,” etc etc and fired it off, unsure if I’d ever get a reply. On the Monday morning an email was waiting for me. It was from Howson’s PA.
‘Peter is delighted that his work has insipired the children. He’d love to see what they’ve done. If at all possible, can you send him their work?‘
So, a selection of the children’s work was sent to the man who’d inspired me/them. A week or so later a reply came with a picture attached. It showed Peter Howson kneeling in his studio, a massive orangey-red work-in-progress behind him. Laid out in a semi-circle in front of him was the children’s artwork. Howson had a huge smile on his face and his hands open wide, as if to say, “Would you look at that?!” It was marvellous. A total thrill for the teacher and an even greater thrill for the kids.
Those same children will now be 19/20 years old, maybe working in the forge if it’s still there, maybe perhaps with issues and problems and religious beliefs of their own. They’ll now be more able, more mature to cope with the difficult nature of much of Howson’s work. His current work, inspired by Covid-19 is spectacular; coming thick and fast, it’s undeniably Howson – it’s in the eyes, and in the tangled Hieronymous Boschisms of the descent-into-hell scene. Bodies meld into one another, limbs and lines becoming blurred. To these eyes (I might be wrong though, I’m no Brian Sewell) there’s no clear religious symbolism this time around: where there were forges and streetlights in every corner there are now unmistakable Corona splodges, spreading ever-inwards to the people at the centre.
The series of paintings called, topically, Thursday At Eight is political, questioning, horrifying… all the things that great art needs to be. I’d love a couple of sessions in a classroom with those kids again – adults now – and we could really get to grips with the imagery, symbolism and messages (collapsing European Union stars, battered, tattered and torn Union Jacks, ‘Me Too’ slogans) that are embedded in these important works of art. Stirring stuff, eh?
Here’s The Pogues‘ Turkish Song of the Damned.
Listen while you process the art.