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Howard Hodgkin, 'Grantchester Road'

by Biddy Elkins, Volunteer Guide

On an improbably hot and sunny April day, I find myself writing about Howard Hodgkin's (1932 - 2017) painting 'Grantchester Road'. The analogy between this sublime weather- with cool undercurrents which threaten cooler climes to come - and this unexpectedly enigmatic painter, is tempting... At first blush, Hodgkin's work shouts COLOUR; bold uncompromising colour in broad, gestural brushstrokes, often (although not in the case of the picture in question here) spilling beyond the canvas, making the frame an integral part of the work. Delve deeper, beyond the swirls, dabs and slashes of paint - reminiscent of Matisse and Vuillard - and one senses a private past driven by a great deal of feeling and sentiment, lurking beneath this colourful carapace. Dredging up emotions and memories of past experience can be painful, requiring courage and resolve. I feel Hodgkin attempts this until the subject comes back again and the painting finishes itself, often after several years.

In 'Grantchester Road' Hodgkin's habit of screening is at its most obvious: a figure half obscured by a pillar of black adds tension to an otherwise warm and sunny painting. Far from wishing to obliterate the memory of the boyfriend who took me to May Balls, punting on the Cam and evenings at The Footlights, I find the touches of cerulean fired by adjacent orange lightens the surface, giving the painting a carefree, outdoor feel. The delicate black/white curves which anchor the work and give it depth, may be due to the fact that this is a painting of an interior in Cambridge and the half obliterated figure is the painter himself! Hodgkin describes finishing a painting as "when the picture is somewhere hovering in mid-air between myself and the spectator so that it looks as strange or as interesting to me as it does to them" - so maybe my interpretation is valid.


In an interview with David Sylvester in 1982, Hodgkin agreed that his work "took off on a leap forward in1975, especially in the painting called Grantchester Road", as it was then he was able to join everything up together. His work then became more loose and liberated, as he said, "I have been able to put more of myself into it".