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John Hoyland in his studio home, Charterhouse Square. London. 17th March 2011 Photo: MICHAEL BIRT

Marks In Time

FROM THE ARCHIVE  After half a century of making marks on a blank surface, a time to reflect. John Hoyland (1934-2011) remembered.

Text: Mike von Joel | Images: John Hoyland

If you want to know something about the British painter John Hoyland, nothing could be easier. Ever since the late 1960’s, when he was associated with the foremost London dealers Marlborough and Waddington, Hoyland has enjoyed much media coverage and recognition by an appreciative art world. His CV lists numerous prizes and awards, elevation to the Royal Academy and television profiles. 

Although making the obligatory sojourns to America and Australia in the 1970’s, by the ‘80s John Hoyland was experiencing living and working all over the world – a passion for travel only recently curtailed by health problems.Not bad then for a lad born in Sheffield in 1934 and who reached maturity in the grey, dour and unforgiving industrial North of the 1950’s. Sheffield at that time was a claustrophobic world epitomised by Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, where an Arthur Seaton lived on every street corner and in every pub; and where the term ‘artist’ meant graphic designer, or a drone in some technical drawing office. ‘The guy who pushed for me at Sheffield was Eric Jones (a brilliant draughtsman, better than Augustus John and without the flamboyance) and he recommended the Royal Academy. Eric was a really cranky guy, we were quite scared of him, and he had been at the RA himself, he was a former Florence Scholar. I think he still had some sort of special “in” with the RA people. Eric put a package together based on my drawings that would appeal to the RA. They had a good system whereby you had a probationary three months. I did lots more drawings in that time so got to stay on, some people were thrown out. When I arrived in 1956, the place was full of debutantes all painting still lifes. Well, when they got back from their lunches at Fortnum’s, there would be only one banana left on the still life instead of three. I used to eat the fucking still lifes! I could only afford two meals a day in some dead cheap cafe. Same with art materials – there was no allowance like at the Royal College. When they went off to the hairdressers, I would take a tube from this table and that table – they never, ever, noticed.’

To escape the straightjacket of parochial expectation was a feat in itself, to gain a place at the famous Royal Academy Schools a triumph of will and talent. But it says much for Hoyland’s character that his Sheffield roots have never been discarded or the essential perspective of a North country sensibility subverted by cosmopolitan experience. It provides the dynamic in Hoyland’s work and the key to his essential character.‘All the great colourists like van Gogh and Matisse came from the North. Renoir’s son asked him why he painted such pale colours and he said “because I don’t come from the North”. It’s a substitute for climate. I didn’t recognise the season until I was about 25, they didn’t have seasons in Sheffield – it was all soot and pea soup fogs. Black people reacted to poverty and deprivation with great blues music – we got George Formby! I used to look longingly at the charabancs passing through Sheffield and I wanted to be going somewhere myself.

‘At the Royal College you had to do National Service before you went, which put a lot of people off. If you came out of National Service you wanted money, a girl and a motor bike. At the Slade you had a three year course but you had to do architecture, a complete waste of time. The RA had none of that. The RA had Peter Greenham as Keeper, who used to go out to get the newspapers from Burlington Gardens in his pyjamas, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.’

The Royal College opened Hoyland’s own eyes to the possibilities of a wider world. And he was ever hungry for information and experience, a characteristic he has to this day. Using the RA as a base of operations, he explored whatever opportunities came his way, and sought to associate with older artists he admired. He journeyed to Scarborough to attend the (now famous) Summer School run by avant-garde educationalist, Harry Thubron. And Hoyland is never slow to applaud those he considers an inspiration to his life and work.

‘I was at the RA and heard that Harry Thubron was a hot teacher with this Summer school, in Scarborough of all places. I’d been there as a kid – all potted meat sandwiches and sand in your shoes. It was Harry, Victor Pasmore and Tom Hudson. Pasmore talked to me about perspectival space and I learned more in ten minutes than months at the Academy. Harry was speaking about Schwitters and the language of modern art.‘Then there was William Turnbull – a great teacher – he’d been to New York and met Barnett Newman and people like that. Around 1958 he had an evening class at the Central School of Art and I went along with Basil [Beattie]. Turnbull lived on the same bus route home as me so each night I grilled the poor sod until he got off. I even went to all the lectures at the ICA when it was in Dover Street. I’d go anywhere to learn something new.‘Van Gogh was a tragic figure, very brave and very hard working, but still a great colourist. I went to the asylum at St. Rémy and saw his room. The view from the window is exactly the same as you know from the paintings and drawings. I was slightly spooked. It’s still full of loonies – all doing bad paintings. The town itself, aside from the cars, is also exactly as it was. Patrick [Caulfield] and I went to see his grave. There are still plenty of crows around but no corn. We also went past Dr. Gachet’s house but the woman leaning out of the window said “Non” when we indicated we’d like a look inside. And I don’t blame her.

‘One of my great inspirations has been, in fact, a sculptor, Tony Caro. He’d had a memorable show at the Whitechapel in 1963 which had really impressed me. Later we represented Britain together at the 1969 São Paulo Biennale.’

John Hoyland is still an active member of the Royal Academy. He was appointed ARA in 1983 and full RA in 1991, and frequently attends meetings at Burlington House. The painting school, located under the historic Piccadilly galleries, is much changed since he first arrived in 1956.‘When people ask me what the teaching was like at the RA in my day, I’d say it barely existed, just a bunch of old grey-haired farts who didn’t know what we were doing. Then I realised that’s ME now. I’m 76, which I can tell you is not as good as being 46. I was asked to do a talk at the RA recently and I prepared something, but half way through I realised they were all thinking “who is this old maniac”. I was from another planet. Now they want to hire a PR at £50,000 a year! I said “we don’t need one. We have Tracey Emin!”

As well as commercial successes, Hoyland has the distinction of being regarded as a painters’ painter. This means respect from his peers and it has been hard earned. Hoyland is the first to admit his brusque Northern manner can alienate some who do not take time to discover the intelligence and quick wit beneath the combative façade. He has also enjoyed a lively and fractious relationship with the art establishment, not to mention his various dealers.‘Leslie Waddington had all these artists like myself, Allen Jones, Joe Tilson and so on. Then in the ‘80s along came this push for German artists like Lupertz, Baselitz and others all but forgotten now. Waddington’s kicked a lot of people out at this time, although not me. Anthony d’Offay won that battle, he knocked Leslie off the “Boss of the Art World” perch. The best thing about showing at Waddington’s was that you got your pictures up next to some really great international artists. That has an effect on people’s perception. But unlike Annely Juda, he never arranged reciprocal shows in Japan or anywhere else. Maybe it was a control thing with him. Then Leslie got married. He got a Rolls Royce – Theo [Waddington] used to laugh, it failed its MOT after three years – and he changed. We’d been great friends until then. However, it is true we had a serious blow up over something in front of Alex [Bernstein] and that did sour our relationship. Nowadays, I’m beginning to think that art dealers are worse than estate agents.‘I’ve never been a star to the “establishment”. It does still exist, but today it’s a new one. It’s run by women. Look at the Whitechapel Gallery, the only men there are doing the sweeping up – it’s all women. Same at the Serpentine. And they are mostly foreign, the Trustees and the Patrons. It’s all been turned into a Society night out. Does Mick Jagger spend his money on painting? The other day I was introduced to an American guy from the Hayward who looked at me blankly, he’d never heard of me! It seems to be politics more than ever now.‘I’ve had lots of peaks and troughs in my time. If you look at someone like Bridget Riley, well, early on she established a brand. And it’s “oh, that’s a Bridget Riley” – it’s a brand, like Daz. It doesn’t really mean anything. I’ve never had a brand that was easy to sell because I am always changing, moving on. This is where I differ with Damien [Hirst] over Francis Bacon. I don’t mind a bit of drama but Bacon was all melodrama. Bacon borrowed a lot of devices from American painting but he never understood them. Take Frank Auerbach. I don’t know Frank but he was a golden boy at the Royal College, I don’t think he ever taught – he certainly never went to a Norwood Junction annexe on a wet Wednesday night. He was groomed by Marlborough to fill the Bacon slot but he is stuck in the Bomberg mode. If Frank came out of Bomberg and Sickert, he should have gone on to Soutine – a brilliant painter who had this incredible limpid quality. Frank never takes any risks, he plays it very safe. Elaine de Kooning said: “painters usually start with red, yellow, orange and green and usually end up with brown. Artists who start with brown I’m not interested in!” De Kooning was like Frank, always struggling and full of doubt, but he was braver and prepared to lose the image to gain the painting. If I get bored painting, I may as well pack up! If I’m not trying something I don’t already know the answer to – then where am I? If you know my work you might recognise it – but it always changes.’

Hoyland’s vigorous studio practice has been curtailed of late by heart problems, maybe a result of hard living and a driven personality, and discovered by chance during treatment for a mystery virus. A virus which, paradoxically, saved his life.

‘One night I sat in my studio in Clerkenwell and started to shake. It went off after about half an hour but then happened again the next night. I went to the Doctor who sent me straight to hospital. The Royal London A&E is like Beirut on a Saturday night – jammed out with aunties, grandmas, kids, the whole extended family – chaos. They whipped me upstairs to a ward and I went on all these drips. I had a virus. However, during this general check up they discovered my aortic valve was blocking up but couldn’t operate until the virus was gone. I transferred to London Bridge hospital, which was like the Hilton hotel by comparison, and they were very keen to get on with an implant but couldn’t until I was clear of infection. I have a pig’s heart now! [ laughing out loud ] but I’ve never got my strength back and I blame the virus for this. My surgeon said he’d had a few sleepless nights over it, so it was pretty serious! I wasn’t really scared, in fact, I’m actually fairly stoical about it all. I do get frustrated if I feel too tired to work when I want to.I’ve witnessed a lot of younger artists die – like John Edwards – and my close friend Patrick [Caulfield] had a terrible time for three or four years before he died. We were in the Friend’s Room at the RA when Patrick came in and said “I’ve just has the worst day in my life”. He’d just been told he had cancer of the tongue. He went for all the treatments and ended up not being able to speak, he had to write things down. One time I was telling him a lengthy joke and he let me go through the whole thing, then wrote on his bit of paper: “that’s the third time you’ve told me that!” He always got me .

‘Since I’ve got older it seems to me that if there is any kind of God, then it’s Nature, and that’s all there is to it. And the body itself is no more than Nature. I’ve always been an atheist, but there has been some sort of awakening. I did a series of “heart paintings” when I came back and I have to say they are a bit dark – the first ones were based on the long cut they make down your chest.’ 

After a robust and very physical lifestyle, Hoyland has now found it necessary to break with the habit of lengthy periods of studio activity, often late into the night or early in the day.

‘I get up in a morning and have breakfast, then put the TV on. Then I think “someone’s coming round at twelve”. I’m easily distracted nowadays. Someone once said to Picasso that he had the energy of three men and he said: “I have no more than anyone else, I just know how to direct it”, and whatever I myself have, that’s where it goes [the studio]. You know Picasso liked masks? Well, at the end of his life he and a good friend got keen on this American wrestling on the TV – where they dress up in masks and costumes – and they would ring each other up and talk about it. It became a big passion with him.’

Hoyland is phlegmatic about the rapidly changing artworld, buffered as he is by the one constant in his life: the practice of painting. But he has never lost his innate disdain for the pomp and circumstance, and slavish devotion to sensation, which defines the art business today. ‘Miró – according to his nephew – used to go crazy when hearing about his art quoted on the stock exchange and the ridiculousness of the prices. He hated it. When I hear about my work on the re-sale market and some of the prices I just think “the vultures are circling” – you know, he’s had a heart attack, he’s not looking that good... [laughs out loud ] I’ll just put my prices up!‘You do meet occasionally people who think, look, feel – come back and look again to test their judgement – and become obsessive and who really want knowledge. Then you get down to the people who want to match the curtains and live in Finchley and the wife doesn’t like the painting. People now buy pictures they have never actually seen. The whole technological world is fucking us all up. But that said, I have to tell you this. A dealer came around here to look at a picture that was just finished. She took a photograph of it and sent it to someone in Australia who bought it that day. It’s the quickest sale I ever had. Actually, I would have liked a bit more time to look at that painting.‘It will always be true that in making art it’s what you learn during the process. It’s completely impossible to make computer art – Harold Cohen tried it 40 years ago – because it doesn’t operate that way. It’s what the work itself teaches you as you do it, making amendments as you go. It’s a different world today. We never thought we’d sell a painting back then. When I left the RA I lived in a very damp flat in Chalk Farm and all my work had been painted on the rough side of hardboard. What could I do with these big heavy things all sized and covered in oil paint? I damp-coursed my flat with them!’

In 1965, a seminal book called Private View appeared. Written by heavyweight critics Bryan Robertson and John Russell, with photographs by the highly fashionable Lord Snowdon, it documented all that was hot or influential in the British art world. A young John Hoyland is pictured at home with his son. One of only a handful of young contemporaries deemed poised for greatness. This early affinity with critics set a pattern that has repeated throughout the artist’s life.

‘That was in 1964-65? I’d just been in the New Generation show at the Whitechapel and was teaching to support myself whilst living in a one bedroom flat in Primrose Hill. I wasn’t cut out for marriage, much as I cared for my wife and son. I was aggressive and hard working. I’d come home from teaching at 5pm, eat, then go into the studio to paint until midnight – every night! I don’t know if it’s a Northern thing, from being born into poverty. But it is a driven thing. We separated in 1968 and I got divorced.‘Critics don’t write about me excessively. I’m quite flattered at times when somebody comes up with a sparkling little firework. Maybe someone’s enthusiasm will make me think I can take that idea further, but on the whole I’m not that bothered.‘I am a great admirer of Mel [Gooding] and John [McEwan], and Andrew Lambirth is very good, although more of a journalist. He’s the only one with a job! John got fired from the Sunday Telegraph. We suspected it was because of Charles Saatchi, who John was always knocking in his arts column. When Nigella Lawson got it on with Saatchi then it was rumoured to be the reason the editor, Dominic Lawson, had him out.’‘When I was in New York, I went round to Clement Greenberg’s house, which we all did for drinks about once a week. He could be extremely rude. “His” chair was always higher than any of the others. Ken Noland used to literally shrink in front of him. He’d have paintings around the walls all mixed up, some famous some unknown. He would be keen to see your opinion agreed with his. “That’s a great painting”, he’d tell you. Nowadays, of course, quality is judged by price alone. He once wrote to me telling me I could have a job near Detroit if I wanted it (I declined) and on another occasion, he wrote saying I could use his name anytime. I think in a way he liked me despite his put downs. [Greenberg once asked him, "Why do you paint more than one image?" Hoyland said, "Because I've got more than one idea."] I always answered him back, which few ever did.'

... and as for the immediate future?

'Beverly [ his wife ] and I have travelled a lot in recent times, West Indies, Bali and such places, and Beverly still has a place in Jamaica. Now we go to our home on the Costa del Sol and I don’t do much, a bit of drawing maybe. I get too tired to do a lot since this operation. Beverly looks after me and I’m just trying to keep going. I’m suffering from wear and tear a bit, I did use to hammer it at times. Now I try to eat right and not drink so much. I have a couple of big canvases ready next door and someone to help me move them about. And I want to paint another series. I have a plethora of ideas in my head – all ready to go.’

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