Peter Howson is arguably one of the finest and certainly one of the most controversial British painters of the late 20th and 21st centuries. Born in London in 1958, he moved with his parents to Scotland aged four and studied at Glasgow School of Art from 1975 – 1977, under Sandy Moffat. On graduating, he took on various jobs, including nightclub bouncer and supermarket manager before enlisting as a private soldier in the Royal Highland Fusiliers. In 1979, disenchanted with the army, he returned to art school and from 1981 began to show at Edinburgh’s influential 369 Gallery.
What might be said to be Howson’s signature style first emerged in a series of murals made for Feltham Community Association in London in 1982, painted in an urban realist manner. He quickly developed this into a style highly reminiscent of Max Beckmann, with exaggerated musculature, sinister characters and voluptuous nudes. He also embraced Beckmann’s subject matter of extreme physical cruelty, depravity and dysfunctional behaviour. He was further influenced by the Mexican muralists of the early 20th century including Hidalgo, Rivera and Clemente.
In his early works Howson concentrated on characterizations of working class men, at the gym, at football matches, in the pub, or merely in a crowd. The exemplar was his iconic painting The Heroic Dosser (1987, National Galleries of Scotland). Tied up with such subject matter were his own memories of the brutality of his life as a soldier, together with his having been victimized and bullied at school and the sexual abuse he had suffered as a child.
All of these fed into an art that became ever more brutal. It was almost inevitable, given the honesty, and graphically human monumentality of his work, that In 1992 Howson should have been commissioned by the Imperial War Museum to record the conflict in the former Yugoslavia and a year later been appointed official British war artist for Bosnia. The effect on the artist however, was near catastrophic and he suffered a breakdown. In fact Howson had always lived in a constant state of nervous anxiety. He suffers from Asperger’s syndrome, an autistic condition that manifests itself principally in an unusual memory for detail and an obsessive need for routine. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Howson’s work continued to display increasing levels of violence and voyeuristic sexuality.
In 2000 Howson was treated for long-term alcoholism and drug addiction and that same year, possibly as result of this treatment, famously underwent a conversion to Christianity. Thereafter for a while, his work began to exhibit a strong religious content. Today, as always enigmatic, shy and unpredictable, he remains one of the most fascinating figures in 20th century British art, reflected by high profile patrons including David Bowie, Sylvester Stallone, Jack Nicholson and Madonna, who had apparently hung one of his canvases in her bedroom.
Howson’s works in Public Collections in the UK can be found here.