|Features on Ghislaine Howard's working
on the maternity unit residency - Daily Telegraph, 29 January 1993
In Conversation with Philip
Vann - The Artist's and Illustrator's Magazine, October
on the genesis of a double portrait - the artist, July 1988
Ghislaine Howard on self-portraiture - the artist, May and June 1984
|GHISLAINE HOWARD spent four
months in a Manchester maternity hospital - painting.
Jane Fickling reports
Just picture the birth of twins
Photograph: JAMES MILNE
|"I'm not at all brave but I found my pencil
and paper acted as a barrier between me and the blood, and I had to work
so fast to get it all down that I didn't have to think. Besides, I know
that if I did pass out no one would stop to pick me up."
War artist? Crime reporter? No, painter Ghislaine
Howard has been witness and recorder to a more domestic life-and-death
struggle - the emergency delivery of twins by Caesarean section. Mother
and babies are doing well: "And I," says Ghislaine, "for all I thought
I was detached, got a bit tearful when it was over and was on a high for
It was the most dramatic moment of her four months
spent drawing and painting expectant and newly-delivered mothers at St
Mary's, the Manchester maternity hospital. From the ante-natal clinic to
the delivery room, she recorded moments of tenderness, anxiety and sheer
Ante-natal examination 1993
oil on canvas
91cm x 122cm
36" x 48"
Commissioned by Manchester City Art Galleries,
the residency is believed to be the first of its kind in Britain. It was
also exactly the kind of project which Ghislaine had been struggling to
organise for some years. She had been talking to two other hospitals, one
for maternity and one for geriatric patients, when the St Mary's commission
Aged 39, she is primarily a portrait artist. But
it was not until she became pregnant with her first child, Max, now eight,
that she turned her brush on herself.
"People have always been my theme," she says. "The
thing that has always interested me is our shared humanity, the emotions
and experiences which bind us together. My work has always been about my
life and what is important to me, but even so I was surprised by the impact
that pregnancy and motherhood had on me. It seemed an obvious thing to
want to record, but I was surprised at how urgent the need was.
"I think it was a way of making sense of the experience,
getting it outside myself so that I could look at it, and also of keeping
the moment forever. There seemed to be so little time. I found myself working
in a much simpler, more direct way."
The results are lifesize and larger-than-lifesize
portraits of Ghislaine pregnant, a mother's eye-view of daughter Cordelia,
now four, breast-feeding. Max struggling into his pyjamas or being tossed
into the air by Ghislaine's art historian husband, Michael.
She kept the same direct style for her work
at the hospital, producing vigorous paintings in bold strokes of oil on
canvas: "I think the work does reflect the urgency of the situation - not
that it was all drama. In a hospital you get a whole range of emotions,
the mundane waiting around for appointments, the day-to-day domestic routine
of life on the ward, and then the drama, anxiety and elation of the delivery
The paintings sacrifice fine detail to atmosphere
and movement. Facial features are generally indistinct, although the subject
matter, a baby feeding, sleeping, being born, is always examined in close-up.
"I'm not a distant observer," says Ghislaine. "I
think the close-up gives a sense of immediacy and that other parts of the
body - the midwife's hands, for instance, or the surgeon's back - are just
as expressive as the face."
Her own face is elfin, topping a slight
figure. Many of her canvases are considerably bigger than she is. "I am
happiest working on a large scale. Painting is a very physical activity
for me - my whole arm goes into it."
Born in Eccles, Ghislaine trained at Newcastle
University and then worked in London for a time. But for the past seven
years the Howards have lived in Glossop, Derbyshire, and since she moved
there she has discovered a growing interest in landscape painting. Her
style translates easily. She favours strong but sombre colours.
Remove the head and her painted torsos assume an
elemental air reminiscent of the stark hills and valleys above her home.
She works in an airy, not to say chilly,
studio overlooking the river running through a deep cleft behind her stone
cottage. While her children were small she learned to work in whatever
brief spaces of time she could snatch, but now the house is blessedly peaceful
during the day.
In fact, it can become too peaceful - hence her
plans for more hospital work, this time in the geriatric wards of the Shire
Hill Hospital near her home. "I do have a need to get out and work with
people," she says.
"And I am fascinated by old faces, by the way a
face changes as it becomes old, and the experiences that shape it. I spend
a lot of time just talking to the patients at Shire Hill. It is a privilege
to be allowed to share the intimate moments of people's lives."
The Daily Telegraph,
29 January 1993
Photograph: ANNE-KATRIN PURKISS
|GHISLAINE HOWARD talks to
Vann about painting her family and wider subjects
'Even though some of my paintings
of parenthood are very big and monumental, I do not lose the sense of the
particular, of intimacy and tenderness'
|Your son Max was born in 1984 and your daughter,
Cordelia, in 1987. How has this affected your life as a painter?
Before the birth of my son, I used to waste so
much time. Since then it's been a balancing act all the time. I remember
when Max was tiny and I had a portrait commission, and I ended up painting
with him in a sling support on my front. But the business of shortage of
time has concentrated my mind tremendously, so that now I can make good
use of any amount of time.
When Max was born, I'd been offered a big exhibition
at Salford City Art Gallery. I was so desperate that the birth of this
child wasn't going to stop me working, that I said I'd have the show when
he was six months old. So every time he shut his eyes I would be painting
away like mad. There were times when I found it difficult and stressful,
but looking back, I did enjoy it. A lot of the work then was based on him
and my feeding him, so it did seem to fit in fairly naturally. I found
reserves I didn't know I had.
How do you cope with interruptions in the studio?
When I paint, it's a very concentrated and quite
frenzied activity, totally absorbing. I need to know I'm not going to be
interrupted, even if it's only 15 minutes. I think 'I've got time' and
the dog starts up an awful caterwauling and the phone rings! When Sesame
Street was on television, every day at one, my children sat and watched
it. That was a precious hour when I could work. My studio is attached to
the house, but it's slightly apart, which is important. The building was
originally a tripe factory! When I used to work in the front room at home,
I could hear everything going on, but now it's very quiet.
How has your subject matter changed since you were
Early morning, Belle Ile 1983
acrylic on canvas
52cm x 42cm
Study for self-portrait
oil on board
86.5cm x 61cm
34" x 24"
I studied art at Newcastle University, and looked
a lot at Titian and Delacroix. I wanted then to paint very significant,
dramatic pictures, scenes from novels and poetry, for instance, and was
left very much to myself to do that. When I went to London as a postgraduate,
I suffered quite a loss of confidence. I did a lot of reflective self-portraits
and interiors. When I came back north, to my roots as it were, my work
started to gain momentum and became more focused. I'd always been interested
in painting the figure, but being pregnant and having children added a
sense of urgency, also the sense of sharing a common condition.
In a way, I don't see my landscape paintings as
separate from my mother and child paintings. Since I moved back to Lancashire
in 1980, the landscape has become very important. I think the landscape
informs my figurative painting and has helped it to develop. I go for strong,
monumental pieces of landscape, like stormy seas and cliffs, not attempting
to paint them in a purely representational way.
In 1984, during your first pregnancy, you made
a striking series of autobiographical paintings and drawings. How conscious
were you that this a rarely-depicted subject?
In my paintings of pregnancy, I notice a lot of blue,
a colour reflecting quite an introspective time, a happy time with a slight
sense of melancholy that things are changing. As the children have grown
there have been paintings of them learning to walk and climb, and developing.
I've painted Max Climbing the Stairs, not a particularly personalised
|Thinking back through the
history of painting, there are very few images of pregnant women. There's
the Madonna del Parto by Piero della Francesca, for example, and the Jan
van Eyck Arnolfini portrait, if indeed she is pregnant. But such images
are few and mostly by men. There are also the paintings of Paula Modersohn-Becker
and works of more recent artists. It seemed obvious and necessary to me
to record this most momentous experience.
Hospital study 1985
charcoal on paper
57cm x 75cm
Do you paint other women and their children?
Yes I've done, for example, a lot of drawings of
a friend feeding her new baby. Manchester City Art Gallery bought one of
these. I do very many life drawings, studies from the human figure, which
is the backbone of my art. Even though some of my paintings of parenthood
are very big and monumental, I do not lose the sense of the particular,
of intimacy and tenderness, little details like the tiny hand being held
in the big adult hand, or the interplay between the feet of the mother
and of the new child.
Some of your most moving pictures are of shared
moments between your husband and your children.
Father and child 1985
oil on canvas
145cm x 115 cm
|Yes. You don't see many father
and child pictures historically but that's changing now. I have
done two paintings of Mike holding Max in the air. That was an intimate
moment, suddenly catching sight of Mike throwing Max up into the
air. [ Michael with Maxim ]
I homed in on it as a tremendously strong image,
the dark image of them against the light of the window. I made a rapid
notation to evoke the pose and then had to go and get Mike to do it all
over again! It was lovely, both nude figures, the wrapping around of the
striped dressing gown against the light. It is a case of being aware all
the time of pictorial possibilities. Another picture just shows the father's
hands with the child. I like to focus very closely on particular parts,
like purposefully excluding the head, showing just an eloquent movement
of the hands.
In painting and drawing, what are your preferred
I don't find pencil very sympathetic to work with.
I use scene painter's charcoal, and broad director's brushes, made from
hog's hair. For me, painting is a very physical process. I like using the
whole arm, putting my whole self into it. I like best very coarse, heavy
flax canvas, which I stretch to size.
Initially in a painting I draw in simple shapes,
the basic structure, with very rapid movements, add fairly thin washes
of paint, then rework the charcoal into the paint. Next, I start to apply
thicker paint in areas that seem to be the mainspring of the composition,
pivots in the structural scaffolding, like here, the shoulder, there the
neck. I use a palette knife to scrape off paint where need be, redefining
all the time with charcoal.
When do you consider a work finished?
There's no way I'm seeking a static, finished object.
In some pictures you can see, for example, that an arm has been in two
or more different positions, and very often I'll leave that out because
I'm happy for a record of the making of the picture, traces of movement,
to be left. There is often a dialogue between the raw canvas and heavily
worked areas. From underpainting, all sorts of colours come through.
Do you paint en plein air towards landscape
|Yes, I do lots of rapid
sketches and inky watercolours, which I bring back to the studio. That's
where the invention really begins. I end up taking liberties and pushing
things around until a memory of the feeling of being there re-emerges,
the feeling of the elements, the spray of the water and so on.
Which artists have you particularly admired?
Titian, Rembrandt, Delacroix, Cézanne. Bonnard
was very important to me at one stage. In recent years, I've looked at
Modersohn-Becker and Kathe Kollwitz, not to imitate them, but in the way
that looking at other artists' work is a form of nourishment.
Cleft in the Rocks,
Flamborough Head 1990
oil on canvas
145cm x 115cm
Living and working near Manchester, what relationship
do you have with the London art world?
As a northern artist, in terms of exhibitions and
sales, you have to go to London. I really recovered my confidence coming
back north to live, and I was very chary then about the London art scene.
It's a question of waiting till you're ready, though even then it's very
hard getting to exhibit in London galleries. In 1991, I had an exhibition
at the Boundary Gallery in St John's Wood, and recently I showed some works
at the Bruton Street Gallery in Mayfair.
When you're painting away, you don't necessarily
think about all the tedious, mundane tasks that you wish somebody else
would do for you: photographing works, sending out slides, keeping an eye
out for open exhibitions, sending in paintings, approaching galleries,
sorting out framing and so on. It's necessary to promote yourself. If your
paintings just sit in the studio racks, you're not communicating anything.
You have to make a bridge between yourself and the public. The only way
you can do that is by working with the galleries, the middlemen.
How do you see the future development of your
I'm now working on drawings towards a series of
paintings on the theme of 'Stations of the Cross', concentrating on the
single figure. I've recently been offered a Residency by the Manchester
City Art Gallery in a maternity unit in a local hospital, leading to a
show at Manchester City Art Gallery in early 1993. It's very exciting having
the opportunity to tackle the same intimate subject matter I have always
done but in a wider, more public context. These ambitious new works complete
a cycle, bringing me back to the preoccupation of those artists I have
always loved, namely depicting our common, vulnerable humanity.
The Artist's and
Illustrator's Magazine, October 1992
The double portrait:
Richard Kendall and
For a long time it has been Ghislaine Howard's
practice to paint portraits of her friends and to incorporate into the
paintings visual references to their professional and personal interests.
Here, she describes the genesis of one of her double portraits
Little Dancer No
oil on canvas
18" x 14"
46cm x 35.5cm
Collection of Bradford City Art
|In January 1987, the exhibition The
Private Degas opened at the Whitworth Art Gallery [in Manchester].
Organised by Richard Thomson, a lecturer in art history at Manchester University,
it explored the means by which Edgar Degas arrived at his startling images.
Being an admirer of his work I found this insight into his studio practice
intensely stimulating and made many drawings and studies of the exhibits.
By coincidence, at the same time another friend,
the artist and art historian Richard Kendall, was working on a book and
some articles about Degas. As both men knew each other well, it seemed
a perfect opportunity to record not only their mutual interests and regard
for each other's work, but also to give expression to my own admiration
for Degas by attempting one of the types of painting for which he is best
known: the double portrait.
I had already made several portraits of art historian
friends, as they present to the artist with my interests the opportunity
to express not only the likeness and character of the individual, but also
references to their fields of study. In 1986 I made a portrait of John
Sheeran, then Keeper at Dulwich Art Gallery, now Curator of the permanent
collection at Cartwright Hall, Bradford, and a contributor to this magazine.
At that time he had completed two shows; one dedicated to transcriptions
of the works in the Dulwich collection, and one to the British painter
of the boxing scene, Sam Rabin. He had also been engaged in the preparation
of a Poussin exhibition.
I felt that the picture was successful within
the terms I had set myself, and it gave me the confidence to embark upon
the much more ambitious project of the double portrait. Not wishing to
produce a pastiche of Degas, I resolved to begin the painting as two separate
canvases which could be joined together within a single frame. I knew that
I wanted the final painting to be a large one, but the first things to
resolve were the relationship between the figures and the nature of the
space that both men were to inhabit.
Portrait of John Sheeran
oil on canvas
60" x 48"
152.5cm x 122cm
|In the portrait (left)
John is shown checking proofs of his Rabin catalogue, framed by a painting
which has special significance for him, Poussin's The Nature of Jupiter.
suggest his interest in transcriptions I included on the left side
of the canvas a partially completed reworking of the same Poussin. The
sitter is seen surrounded by his enthusiasms, and completely immersed in
his work. I wanted the painting to suggest something of the monumental
grandeur of the gallery building and its contents and so I began the painting
by stretching a large piece of canvas on the studio wall and blocking in
the major elements of the composition as freely as possible to allow the
subject to find its own scale. Gradually, as I worked on the portrait,
it began to assume a size relative to the paintings of that collection.
I wanted to achieve a sense of reality, to produce
the kind of space that would be, initially at least, believable as a breathable
atmosphere; the details could wait. It was important to capture in the
the poses something that would be instantly recognisable to those who knew
the two men as being a 'true' expression of some part of their personality.
Before starting work on more specific studies
I made several compositional sketches. These focused my thoughts on possible
compositional ideas, and gave me a basis for the drawings and studies that
were to follow. As I drew Richard Thomson working in his attic study, I
decided to use that setting in conjunction with the exhibition space at
the Whitworth Art Gallery. Richard Kendall was more problematic; his interest
in Degas has affected both his painting and his academic work as an art
historian. Somehow I had to resolve these complexities into one compact
After a few false starts, I decided to show him
in his study and to refer to his practical interest in the subject by including
one of his own paintings in the portrait; that of Degas as an old man sitting
in front of a garden trellis, a work owned by Richard Thomson. On the desk
would be the paraphernalia of his present research interests including
his prized photograph of Degas' spectacles. I made many rapid sketches
of the two figures, not attempting to capture their precise features but
trying to catch a pose, movement or gesture that I felt to be typical and
which would be seen as such by people who knew them.
Although I rely mainly on quick charcoal drawings
and pastel sketches to develop my ideas and capture something of the visual
reality of the sitters, I also use a camera loaded with a fast film and,
with little regard for the rules of photography, I take a number of shots
between sketches. I find that the more blurred or quirky the results, the
more likely they are to stimulate my imagination.
|One of the pastel studies of Richard Thomson standing
in his study, talking on the telephone, served as an effective counterpoint
to my idea of having Richard Kendall leaning over his desk; Thomson's pose
evolved quite naturally. The first drawings were 'stiff' and rather too
formal for my liking; I dislike the formality of posed drawing sessions
and much prefer to work with the sitter whilst actively engaged in his
work. As so often happens in such cases the artificiality of the situation
is broken when the outside world intrudes upon the pre-arranged drawing
session. The telephone rang and, forgetting my presence in answering it,
he fell into the characteristic pose that I had been hoping for - a fortuitous
link with my original concept of Thomson as a standing figure; the two
poses creating a visual tension familiar in many of Degas' paintings.
Study of Richard Thomson
pastel and charcoal on paper
33.5" x 23.5"
85cm x 59.5cm
I continued to work in this manner right through
the various stages of the painting itself. I enjoy using a heavy, coarsely
woven unbleached flax which has the resilience to withstand the punishment
it receives, and a fairly limited palette consisting of white and black,
cadmium red and vermilion, alizarin crimson, burnt sienna, cadmium orange,
cadmium yellow, Naples yellow, cerulean blue and French ultramarine, and
occasionally veridian green. Because of the texture of the canvas I find
hog's hair brushes most suitable for my needs.
||A series of painted sketches
followed. Some were rapid oil sketches, in which I pushed colours and forms
around to explore and fix the relationship of the figures to the canvas
area. Others were more highly finished tonal studies which have become
paintings in their own right. Some of these were used to test a certain
compositional idea, to find out how far, for example, the voluminous bulk
of Richard Kendall's jumper could be exaggerated to create an effective
foil to Richard Thomson's vertical pose.
Compositional study of Richard
pastel and charcoal on paper
33.5" x 23.5"
85cm x 59.5cm
I worked on all areas of the canvas at once, drawing
and painting at the same time. The initial marks were made with scene painters'
charcoal, which was then freely brushed over with thin paint, improvising
as the picture progressed. Details were added and subtracted as the days
passed, allowing conscious deliberation and chance to take active parts
in the picture-making process.
Around the standing figure I began to weave
a collage of images taken from sketches made during the dismantling of
the show. These began to spill over into the Kendall half of the painting,
across a charcoal drawing of Degas' Little Dancer that I had made over
the connecting sides of the two canvases. Richard Kendall had also produced
paintings of this sculpture and I felt that the piece had just the right
sense of contained energetic movement to unite the two works.
|The space around Richard
Kendall was naturalistically based from the start, whilst, due to my decision
to incorporate references to the Degas show, the spatial construction of
the Thomson canvas became more ambiguous as the work progressed. I have
always been fascinated by accounts of Degas' studio, and I wanted to create
some kind of feeling of the chaos in which he worked at the end of his
of Richard Thomson
pastel and charcoal on paper
33.5" x 23.5"
85cm x 59.5cm
The small figure to the left of the joined canvas
with its arm upraised in a distinctive painting posture began as a sketch
of a Degas bather, but as I worked on the painting it assumed the guise
of a self-portrait, glimpsed in a studio mirror whilst at work. Soon after
this, the painting declared itself finished. The trellis work was strengthened,
the figure of the attendant redefined and the horse in the left hand corner
reworked. The canvas still had a pleasing balance of finish across its
surface; some areas heavly painted, or scraped down; other areas showing
the weave of the raw canvas and the original charcoal marks. I decided
to leave well alone.
What I wished to evoke was the concentration
and dedication of these two scholars in the pursuit of their chosen area
of study, and at the same time pay my own hommage à Degas.
|The painting was intended
to be a portrait of two friends and an exploration of some aspects of Degas'
art. In keeping with the theme of Richard Thomson's show it also became
in a sense a set of transcriptions of Degas' work. It made me realise the
extent of Degas' genius in being able to suggest, as I did not attempt
to do in any obvious way, a sense of mood or psychological tension.
Early stage, showing clearly
the charcoal drawing and some
of the preliminary 'brushing in'
oil on canvas
56" x 92"
142cm x 234cm
the artist, July 1988
canvases) Final stage
oil on canvas
142cm x 234cm