Issue Number: 103
He has painted Ulster’s Troubles and the light in Venice but, as he tells Nigel Billen over lunch, Ken Howard RA prefers not to be called an artist.
Ken Howard RA, cloaked in a black tabarro, sweeps into the restaurant, his unruly hair creating as much of an impression as his Borsalino hat will allow. In Venice, where he has a studio, his neighbours call him Maestro. The musical connotation is not inappropriate. ‘When I paint I orchestrate tone and colour,’ he says. ‘It took me years to learn that the only way you can paint light is to paint dark. It was a revelation.’
It is the artist as magician and the kind of discussion of technique that makes Howard
popular with enthusiasts as well as collectors (RA Professor of Perspective, and past President of the New English Art Club, he is also on the advisory boards of Artists & Illustrators and The Artist magazines). When Howard obligingly repeats his criticisms of conceptual artists – all idea, no execution – it helps create a neat, Ken Howard-shaped pigeonhole. An artists’ artist, except in the days when anyone from Madonna to Beckham is called an artist, he would prefer simply to be known as a painter.
We are at Via Condotti, a classy Italian restaurant chosen by Howard both because it is
Italian, and because he has eaten here after the opening of his shows at the nearby Richard Green gallery in New Bond Street. With the RA around the corner it will also be handy for his show of new oil paintings at the Friends Room.
What, he wonders, do we want to talk about? For one who tells an anecdote almost as well
as he paints, is this the caution of a man who has always endured an element of professional criticism? He remembers, not bitterly but well enough to quote verbatim, some of the harsher things written. He remembers, too, the teacher at Hornsey art school who declared his work ‘a waste of time – Cézanne had the last word on what you are about’. But it was the tutor at the Royal College of Art who suggested he become an illustrator for Woman’s Own that was hardest to bear. Howard quit and applied to be a tea boy at Pinewood Studios. Turned down, he worked on a farm for six weeks. ‘After that I thought, I don’t care how bad I am, all I want to do is paint. I just went back to the Royal College and carried on.’
Born in 1932, the son of an engineering fitter father, he grew up in Neasden. As a boy he was a trainspotter who loved to draw engine sheds; now he is one of the best-selling artists of his generation. Just luck, Ken almost suggests: ‘My mother used to say that if I fell down the loo I would come up with a bar of chocolate.’ Certainly, he has been fortunate at times. His landlady, who owned Sir William Orpen’s former studio in Chelsea, allowed him to rent it so long as she and her friends could paint there one afternoon a week. Eventually, Howard was able to buy it and the studio next door. As well as Venice, he has a studio in Mousehole, thanks to his parents’ decision to up sticks to Cornwall.
His best-known works echo his good fortune. Boudinesque scenes of beaches, golden moments
in Venice, a succession of decorous nudes in his studios – you wonder if he might not grow tired of the dolce vita. Yet Howard is not a smug man and much of our conversation is taken up with grittier memories of being an official war artist. Having done national service in the Royal Marines, Howard was a logical appointment: 'If someone asked would I go to Iraq now I would say, no way. But when I went to Ireland I was 40. At that age you think life is forever.'
Yet it wasn't simply carefree optimism that accompanied Howard. 'I had just divorced; I wasn't making much money; I'd lost my home, so I was pretty low. You can't help but be affected by knowing that the guys on patrol might not come back.' Out of this period came the work Howard considers to be his finest, Ulster Crucifixion (1978), now in the Ulster museum in Belfast. Its focus on lost childhood and its weaving together on politics, history and religion summed up Howard's response to his time in Ulster. If this was Howard at his most intense, is his work somehow second best? 'I'm not that person anymore,' he says. 'I love painting Venice. I love painting women in my studio and painting Cornwall... In the end you paint what you are.'
Howard thinks he would have been a better painter if he had been part of a movement or lived in the times of his great hero, Velázquez, but he paints, like all great artists, for the moment. His second wife, Christa (also a painter) suggested he had it in him to be the best watercolourist of his generation. Sadly, she died a few years ago and now a condition called focal dystonia means he has lost the fine motor skills in his fingers he
needs to work in watercolour. Those moments are gone, but Howard continues to paint brilliantly in oils. Neither his talent nor his luck has deserted him. In Venice, a woman
approached him to see how she had been incorporated into the view. A few years later, Dora Bertolutti tracked him down to an exhibition in London. Now they are married.