Charles Saumarez Smith, chief executive, Royal Academy of Arts

I first got to know Howard Hodgkin when I became director of the National Gallery. He had been a trustee from 1978 to 1985, when, among other things, he did an exhibition in a series called The Artist’s Eye. He wanted to cover the room with bright, floral Indian cotton, but wasn’t allowed, so he used blue bunting instead.

He never talked about his family and I note that he leaves out all reference to them in his entry in Who’s Who. But he had famous forebears, including Thomas Hodgkin, who gave his name to Hodgkin’s disease, and his cousins, Sir Alan Hodgkin, the great scientist, and Dorothy Hodgkin, who won the Nobel prize for chemistry. He also leaves out the fact that he went to Eton. He ran away and was stopped by a policeman who asked him what he was doing. He said he wanted to be an artist. But he was certainly influenced by the art master, Wilfrid Blunt, Anthony Blunt’s polymathic older brother, who was able to borrow works from the Royal Collection and introduced him to the study of Indian painting, in which Hodgkin became a great expert. He then went to Bryanston (also left out of his entry), where he was taught art by Charles Handley-Read, an expert on the Victorian architect William Burges. He ran away from Bryanston as well.

I always had the impression that he had a long, relatively conventional period in his life after being a student at the Bath Academy of Art in Corsham, where he taught during the 1950s, and met his wife, Julia. It was only in the 70s that his career took off. His paintings were shown at the Oxford Museum of Modern Art, when Nicholas Serota was director, and at the Serpentine Gallery. His marriage ended, and he moved to a flat near the British Museum. Later in his life, he felt it was a good thing not to have been successful too early, but remembered “many bitter moments … when it was so long before anybody seemed to want to look at my pictures at all”.

During the 80s, he became famous. He represented Britain in the Venice Biennale and was awarded the Turner prize in 1985, in the days when the Turner prize was not given to a young turk, but for lifetime achievement.

By the time I got to know him, he was already a grand old man of the art world, but he was also funny, warm, wry, and deeply sympathetic. He lived with his partner, Antony Peattie, in a converted dairy nearly opposite the British Museum. They also had a house in Normandy, which is extraordinarily atmospheric, with large open rooms painted like a Hodgkin.

What will his position be in the canon of modern art? I view him as an aesthete and a colourist, in the tradition of Matisse. He is not easy to categorise, because although in the 60s he knew lots of painters and was influenced by the abstract expressionism of the late 50s – including exhibitions of Jackson Pollock and Rothko at the Whitechapel art gallery – later in life he stood rather aloof from the contemporary art world. He much preferred the company of writers, including Bruce Chatwin, James Fenton and Julian Barnes. I think he will always be regarded as a great painter, as long as people appreciate the idea of pure form. But what I will remember best about him was the way that while telling a story about his life or childhood, his face would suddenly crumple into tears.

Nicholas Serota, director, Tate galleries

By the early 70s, I had been looking at Howard’s paintings for a few years. They always struck me as being rather different from everyone else’s. He stood out. They were much smaller than was conventional at that time, and were highly wrought, often in oil, when most people were using acrylic. They seemed like little burning jewels, hanging on the wall, radiating colour and light. I didn’t understand them. I wasn’t sure if they were figurative or abstract. They weren’t pop, but nor were they were colour-field, where artists of that period used expanses of flat colour. They were like nothing else. And so I asked to see him.

It was striking that nobody could put Howard into a pigeonhole, and I think people found the paintings hard to read. He didn’t get the recognition he deserved until later, although he had always been respected by other artists, and for his intellect and insight into the old masters and 19th-century French painting. By 2005, however, he had become an international name.

He had a passion for India and visited regularly from the 60s onwards. He was captivated by its hot colours and the extremes of temperature, and also its earth colours. Over time, he became a painter not just of people but of landscape, and a consummate painter of weather, in works that record a spectacular sunset, or a squall of rain. Rather like Constable, he was passionate about the changing conditions of light – the sun going behind clouds; the dark, grey sky of a summer thunderstorm – these were things that really affected him. Because, above all, they are about capturing the mood of a place, a person, a fleeting moment.

William Boyd, novelist

My Hodgkin moment occurred in the late 80s. I was at a Christie’s auction, vaguely hoping to buy a picture (a John Hoyland) when a Howard Hodgkin came up. It was a thing of absolute beauty: a classic mid-period Hodgkin, a lambent abstract – that included the frame – of carefully fused tones of yellow and cream with a splash of red, and one of Hodgkin’s teasingly suggestive titles – Swimming the Hellespont or Sunset in the Algarve or something similar. The estimate was around £150,000. The bidding started and I raised my paddle.

This is a dangerous whim of mine, bidding for art I could never, ever afford. I drop out instantly, but over the years I’ve bid for Hockneys, Henry Moores, Freuds and so on. In a parallel universe I have a superb collection. I dropped out of the Hodgkin bidding almost immediately, but was aware that sitting along from me was someone very keen to buy. This was a middle-aged Italian woman, effortlessly chic. Oddly, the sale room was very quiet – “modern British” didn’t have the cachet in the late 80s that it has now. There was a gaggle of dealers and gallerists standing at the back sharing some fascinating anecdote and not paying attention. The Italian woman’s fierce concentration meant she was effectively the sole bidder. As the hammer went down, the dealers woke up and stormed the auctioneer’s rostrum to protest – to no avail. The price was unbelievably low but the Italian woman now owned a perfect Hodgkin. How I envied her.

When one contemplates the “greats” of Hodgkin’s generation – Frank Auerbach, Freud, Michael Andrews, Hockney, Bacon, Patrick Caulfield – one realises that almost all our world-famous artists are figurative to a significant degree. Hodgkin also started out as a figurative painter, but his switch to abstraction in the late 60s was the game-changer for him, if I can put it crassly. The result is a body of work unrivalled in its beauty and sumptuousness. To say that Hodgkin is one of the all-time great colourists is no facile compliment. So are Paul Klee and Matisse. What Hodgkin did in his paintings, to put it simply, was to seduce through the eye. I once wrote that perhaps the most telling aspect of a Hodgkin painting is that it makes the law-abiding viewer want to steal it. They are alarmingly, alluringly covetable.

Unusually, perhaps, Hodgkin is much admired by novelists and poets. I don’t think this is a simple expression of good taste. Hodgkin was an abstract painter, but he gave his paintings very un-abstract titles: When did we go to Morocco?; The Hopes at Home; Reading the Letter; After the Shop had Closed, to name but four. And by doing so, he inevitably invites an interpretation. By marrying pure colour and an allusive title, Hodgkin’s paintings became charged – each one seemed to hide a private, covert story, if only you could spot it. In literature this effect is known as “suppressed narrative”. No wonder writers revered him. It’s a risky claim to make, but his high reputation, it seems to me, is absolutely secure and will endure as long as there are eyes happy to be seduced by his refulgent art.

Paul Moorhouse, curator, National Portrait Gallery

Howard Hodgkin is arguably one of the late 20th century’s greatest portraitists.

I make this claim aware that some observers do not consider his paintings of people to be portraits at all. Some wonder how a painting composed of expressive marks and shapes, but lacking literal description, can even have a subject. Such is the hold that resemblance has on the way we read paintings. But this is a profound misunderstanding, for it fails to take account of metaphor. The capacity of the human mind to read one thing as embodying or expressing another – by association rather than resemblance – means that abstract form is uniquely eloquent. Hodgkins’ paintings have always had a compelling message to share about people, the relationships between individuals, our place in the world, and the capacity of paint to represent a wealth of experience.

Hodgkin’s early paintings and drawings replicate the appearance of certain individuals, but from the outset there is an evident will to deepen the visual argument – which is that representing the world as it appears is not possible. A painted image that freezes a single moment does not convey the flux of experience. Nor is it a full expression of the subject. In moving beyond so-called literal appearances, and turning instead to representing the subjective faculties of memory and emotion, Hodgkin embraced private realms of experience that connect more intimately with the outside world and its inhabitants.

Ultimately, his paintings are encounters with the absence of certain individuals, the poignant frailty of relationships being an abiding concern. People come and go, their presence illuminates a moment, and their departing leaves a void. Some leave, never to return. Memory, however, brings them back. By evoking what Wordsworth described as “emotion recollected in tranquillity”, Hodgkin’s portraits redeem their human subject more profoundly. That is the secret of their greatness.

Excerpted from the catalogue for Howard Hodgkin: Absent Friends (National Portrait Gallery, 23 March–18 June 2017, the first exhibition of Hodgkin’s portraits.

Colm Toíbín, novelist

He had a way of talking and then stopping, as though the words just spoken contained a weight that he needed to leave down. I noticed his eyes, not simply the strained, melancholy look, or the softness of the grey-blue colour, as much as the wide sweep of the gaze. He would be silent and look away into the distance; often, his eyes would begin to fill with tears. His way of looking was extraordinary. He could create a strange aura around himself when he studied a painting, or an object; the expression on his face became deeply vulnerable; it was as though he was calmly measuring up to something that would soon be lost to him. He saw single fleeting moments as having more value for him than a period of time, or an idea.

Thus, when in an interview I tried to take him through the events of his life, he sighed in withering boredom. He could think of nothing as tedious as facts. Yet in his work, in the swirls and gestures and marks he made, in the colours he chose to work with, there was always a mixture of sharpness and sensitivity, a mingling of dreamy suddenness and careful strategy. At the basis of all his sumptuousness as a painter, there was rigour and austerity.

Many of his pictures, with all their freshness and sense of excitement, took years to make. Most of the work was done alone in his studio across the road from the British Museum, where the half-made paintings were all turned inwards. When I asked him what would happen if he turned all of the unfinished work towards him at the same time, he looked at me like I was mad. He would run screaming out into the street, he said.

He worked by taking one of the unfinished works and gazing at it until a solution came, and then he painted until the work contained the very emotion or experience that gave rise to its making in the first place. He had learned to make a brush-stroke or a swirl or an arc and stop halfway and leave it, and then return and finish it as if it had been done in one quick second, with no sign of the time that had passed in between.

His paintings, he insisted, were neither abstract nor examples of a colourist at work. The term colourist, he said, has no meaning, except in terms of very bad art. There was no colour in his work, he emphasised, for its own sake; he was not involved in making decoration. Nor did he allow colour to stand for some generalised set of emotions or experiences. He always thought of himself as a representational painter. The paintings arose from precise occasions, precise emotions, from a memory, something very specific and personal.

He was aware that talking about emotion in painting was not fashionable, and he did not refer to his peers with any special warmth. He spoke openly about working in an environment whose hostility to him he fully appreciated.

He found a style as a painter that matched who he was as a man, and he stuck with that. There were times, he must have known, when the emotion in the work seemed to exceed its cause. That was part of the risk he took. Each painting was a balance between released emotion and something coiled, concealed, withheld.

He also knew, I think, that if his best paintings were to be hung together with subtlety and care, then that space would be a sacred, hushed space, a place of rare, painterly, concentrated power.

He knew that this would be true now, or at any time in the future. He was right to be proud of what he had achieved.

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