Glasgow artist Peter Howson talks

About faith in God, addiction to alcohol and why he is using his skills to draw attention to disability

PETER HOWSON is extremely upfront about many things: art, God, the world and all its problems, man’s inhumanity to man and the ultimate solution (God again) and the fact he feels he shouldn’t be doing this interview. “Only because I feel I’m drawing attention to me giving to charity “which is exactly what charity shouldn’t be about,” he says.

However, in donating the final painting from his John Lennon series for auction at the Enable charity ball being held in Glasgow on 13 September, he knows that publicity is more important than hiding his light under a bushel, to echo the religious theme that now runs through every aspect of his life. Furthermore, in planning a bespoke painting for the charity about his experience of learning disability “in terms of his own Asperger syndrome, a type of autism characterised by difficulties with social interaction, and his daughter’s complex learning disabilities “there is no doubt this charismatic, outspoken artist will showcase disability to a wide and fascinated audience who might otherwise never stop to think about it.

Howson has never been a national treasure, possibly because he simply isn’t typical “treasure” material. He’s too angry and outspoken, depicting the darker sides of life “and in the past, living it” and drawing attention to stark realities, not just in his portrayal of the grind of everyday life, but also in his role as official war artist in Bosnia. However, as one of Britain’s most celebrated artists who has successfully captured the imagination of the glitterati (customers include Madonna, David Bowie and Mick Jagger) he has a shrewd awareness of his worth in terms of making people sit up and take notice. “I want this new picture to make people realise what it’s like to have Asperger’s,” he explains. “It will be a special painting revealing exactly what it’s like to live like this, which is a very alien place where you don’t feel part of the world. It’s as if all of you are characters in a TV show that only I am aware of and it’s so important that people are made aware of this condition. “Some of the greatest artists and musicians have appeared to suffer from this over the centuries so I wouldn’t say creativity is affected by it. But it’s very hard to live with it and relate easily to other people. I was diagnosed in 1993 and it was a great relief to know there was something there that was at the root of how I behave. “My daughter Lucie, who is 22, was diagnosed at the age of seven, but she also has physical disabilities to deal with, such as a hole in the heart, epilepsy, a collapsed lung and narcolepsy. That doesn’t define her she’s a wonderful warm human being, a good person but Asperger’s can have a huge impact on your life, in all sorts of ways. It can make you very manipulative, which you have to battle with.”

That isn’t his only battle: Howson has been fighting to stay sober since 2000, when his addiction to drink and drugs lead him to check himself into Castle Craig clinic in Peebles. “I had reached the stage physically where I could hardly make it up the three small steps I had in my kitchen and I went in to Castle Craig expecting to be gently handled,” he recalls wryly. “Instead, I got kicked about! But it was there I found God again, although I had always believed. “I’d been angry for years, and drinking and taking drugs was part of that, but I realised God’s the only addiction you can safely have. Over three or four months I had a very slow, undramatic recognition of what it felt like to be loved and loving. It wasn’t a Road to Damascus experience in terms of a sudden revelation, though the outcome was the same. “I’ve had many religious experiences and absolutely never through drink or drugs, but now I know that God is the answer, the only answer. That enables me to try to keep myself safe every day and to try to make the decisions we should all be making, which is making the right decision rather than what you want. I still live my life for the moment and don’t worry about the future.”

He is cheerfully unrepentant about replacing one addiction with another – though religion in his case should be less destructive than drink and drugs – and is equally adamant this is the one solution for everyone. His recent exhibition of pictures depicting Pete Doherty dead is typical of his desire to wind people up and get a response and while he hasn’t heard directly from Doherty, he has been told the singer was shocked enough at the paintings to concentrate on writing rather than partying. “I’m not sure how true that is but I do think I can say something to people going through the same addictions I have,” says Howson. “Pete Doherty, Amy Winehouse, Peaches Geldof  – they have to recognise you simply cannot have your cake and eat it. I know Bob Geldof, I’m very fond of him, but I’m sure he will be incandescent with rage if it’s true his daughter had a drug overdose, but that isn’t the way to deal with it. We need to start looking after each other better  – by all means send money abroad to help other people, but at the same time keep an eye on the old man next door who hasn’t been seen for three days. Never mind saving the planet, the answer lies in saving all the people.”

Saving them also means spiritual as well as physical nurture, which in Howson’s view is helped by what he considers to be engaging with reality. “You have people like Richard Dawkins belittling and denying other people’s faith,” he says scathingly. “That guy’s in an ivory tower he has no idea what it’s like to live in some dreadful estate in utter poverty where your faith is all you’ve got. People like him should try living in those circumstances before they attempt to explain how faith is clinging to superstition. I’m not saying I’ve ever done that but at least I live close enough to reality to see what life is really like for so many people. “We should stop analysing the world and simply be grateful for what God has given us. Dawkins is trying to unweave a divine tapestry, a picture none of us can see clearly because we’re in it. We should all be turning to God. That is our only answer.”