Ken Howard obituary | Paint

In 1973 Ken Howard was sent by the Imperial War Museum to cover the Troubles in Northern Ireland as an in-name war artist. (In the political rhetoric of the time, provincial violence did not constitute war.) To Howard’s surprise, he found that his habit of painting en plein air made him friends on both sides of the division. sectarian. “If you used a camera, you were in trouble,” he said. “If you were sitting in the street and drawing, and they could see what you were doing, then you weren’t in trouble.”

An IRA man on Falls Road blew up a car to make it more scenic for his brush, Howard said. It was a little boy he saw swinging from a lamppost that was, however, to become the focus of his best-known work.

The Ulster Crucifixion (1978), now in the Ulster Museum, National Museums of Northern Ireland, is done in the style of a Gothic altarpiece, with a central panel, folding wings and a predella. The rough paintwork of its background represents and echoes the graffitied walls of West Belfast. His child subject is suspended from the post as from a cross.

Ken Howard’s 1978 work Ulster Crucifixion is in the style of a Gothic altarpiece. Photograph: The Estate of Ken Howard, Ulster Museum Collection

If Ulster Crucifixion was to be Howard’s most notable work, it was far from the most typical. Its flavor was, by far, from Francis Bacon; a much more usual flavor was that of Claude Monet. Much to the chagrin of discerning critics and a young generation of British artists, Howard, who died at the age of 89, contented himself with describing himself as “the last impressionist”. He was, he says, “a painter of light”, in the squares of west London – his habit of street sketching led locals to nickname him “High Street Ken” – in Mousehole, Cornwall and in Venice, each of which place where he kept a studio.

Works such as Honesty and Charlotte (1990), produced in his Chelsea studio, are typical of this practice. Painted against the light, against the light of day, the dappled colors of the canvas take inspiration from the titular vase of white pods in the center of the composition. The gaze of light on wallpaper, fabric, glass and flesh becomes the subject of the image; his sickertian nude seems almost incidental. The same goes for the subjects of Howard’s many depictions of Venice and Mousehole. “Mousehole is the only place in the world close to Venice in terms of light,” he said.

Its highlands had not always been so sunny. Born in Neasden, in the north-west suburbs of London, the younger of two children of Frank, a mechanic from Lancashire, and Elizabeth (née Meikle), a Scotswoman who worked as a cleaner, Howard recalls “having paints correctly from the age of seven and draws and paints before he can write”.

An art teacher at Kilburn High School encouraged young Ken to apply to nearby Hornsey College of Art, where he studied from 1949 to 1953. This was followed by National Service in the Royal Marines and then two years at the Royal College of Art (1955-57).

Ken Howard, outdoor painting in Rajasthan, India.  He was, he said, “a painter of light”.
Ken Howard, outdoor painting in Rajasthan, India. He was, he said, “a painter of light”. Photography: Dora Bertolutti Howard/Gabriel Fine Arts

By this time, Howard had already moved through the mainstream trends of social realism—”I painted Neasden and the power stations”, he recalled—and the painting of kitchen sinks. Both had brought him some success. The first work he sold was from the Aberdeen shipyards, where he was taken by a trucker uncle just after the war: the painting was bought by David Brown, future owner of Aston Martin.

For all his later fondness for sunlight and the sea, Howard insisted that it was this early grounding in industrial grime that shaped his art. “I was brought up surrounded by the horizontal and vertical structures of rail yards and factories,” he said. “I am not a landscape painter, but rather a vertical and horizontal painter.”

While this was clear in the composition of Ulster’s Crucifixion, it was less so in Howard’s many images of Venetian beaches, churches and canals. When he went to the Royal College, his fellow students were fascinated by abstract expressionism. “America had arrived just before me,” recalls Howard. “I started to feel a little off.”

He would stay out of the fashionable mainstream for the rest of his life. Whatever its linear underpinnings, his art was both figurative and unashamedly pleasing; to critics like the late Brian Sewell, saccharine. His job with the British Army aside, it also seemed never to change, as Howard happily accepted. “I’m one of those people who always knocks on the same nail,” he says. Although he participated in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition for many years, he was in his late twenties before he was made a full Academician.

Sarah at Oriel, 2018, by Ken Howard, painted 'contra-jour', or 'against daylight'.
Sarah at Oriel, 2018, by Ken Howard, painted ‘contra-jour’, or ‘against daylight’. Photograph: Courtesy of Portland Gallery

He especially admired Turner, and not just for what he called the master’s “visual genius”. “I like the idea that, like Turner, I come from a working-class background,” Howard said.

In the 2010s, he traced his hero’s journeys through Switzerland in five voyages, producing 100 monumental canvases of Swiss mountains and lakes and a book titled Ken Howard’s Switzerland: In the Footsteps of Turner. In 2004, he also followed Turner by being appointed Professor of Perspective at the Royal Academy, a position he held until 2010. In 2017, he was named Patron of Turner’s House Trust.

All of this made the dismissal of critics like Sewell easier to bear, as did the awarding of an OBE in 2010. The financial success also cushioned the blow. If Howard’s work never reached the prices enjoyed by his more avant-garde contemporaries, he made up for it by being both prolific and popular. “I probably have more pictures on people’s walls than any other painter alive today,” he liked to say. Small, cheerful, and a fan of theatrical capes and hats, he was not inclined to introspection.

He also had a good sense of real estate. In 1973, Howard rented his Chelsea studio – once the studio of Edwardian society portrait painter William Orpen – for six books a week. Over the next 30 years he bought not only it, but also the large house it was in, which was worth several million pounds at the time of his death. “My mom always used to say if I fell in the toilet I’d come with a chocolate bar,” laughed Howard. “I think that pretty much sums it all up.”

He was married three times: first, in 1962, to Annie Popham, a clothing designer (they divorced in 1974); then, in 1990, to the Hamburg painter Christa Gaa Köhler, whom he had met in Florence in the 1950s (she died of cancer in 1992); and finally, in 2000, to the Italian photographer Dora Bertoluti. She survives him, along with a son-in-law and two daughters-in-law.

James Kenneth Howard, painter, born December 26, 1932; died on September 11, 2022

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