To speak with Peter Howson is to grapple with the sense that behind all the grim caricature of his paintings and exaggerated visceral violence is a gentle man, ill at ease with the disturbingly graphic world around him. For all the macho posturing and brute force of his creations, Howson is, ironically, introverted, honest and quite shy. What is interesting about talking with him – this ex-bouncer, ex-Tesco manager and, dare I forget, internationally acclaimed artist – is that his conversation runs off at completely random and bizarre tangents, a fact which he is compelled to apologise for at regular intervals (it is only later I discover why).
With Howson there is a palpable presence of his childhood lurking somewhere close by, or at the very least, someone’s childhood. He doesn’t always finish the sentence he starts, preferring, instead, for you to fill in the blanks. You ask a question and he gives you the answer to something completely different. For example, I ask him if he enjoys living and working in London, and he says: ”I always put the clocks an hour forward there because I can’t bear to be late for anything. I get nervous if I’m late. Recently, my mother told me that my grandfather was exactly the same. He always had the clocks in the house forward. In the middle of dinner parties he would come down in his dressing gown and wind the alarm clocks up and that was the hint to leave. I used to just bugger off at parties and my wife would be furious with me. I’d usually go to the studio. But I don’t go out much anymore.”
Like his paintings, his conversations are delivered as dark and intense monologues, often laced with unconscious wit and a profound sense of something very important waiting to be revealed. Not that I’m complaining. I have certain expectations of Peter Howson and he confounds them all beautifully. As a world-renowned painter (his paintings hang in galleries and homes around the world, including those of Madonna, Stallone, Geldof, Bowie and Coltrane), I expect him to be slightly stand-offish, but he is not in the slightest. I expect him to subtly tell me how brilliant he is compared to other artists, but he doesn’t speak about his work unless pushed. I expect him to bully his interrogator, but his placid nature and obvious warmth are engaging and refreshing.
We are sitting in a third-floor room at the Grosvenor Hotel in Glasgow’s West End. He comes here every two weeks, after travelling up from London, to visit his 12-year-old daughter Lucie, who stays with him for the weekend. (Howson is separated from his wife, Terry, who still lives in Glasgow but, he points out, they are still very firm friends.) He has agreed to speak to me about Lucie, who is autistic, and the influence she has on his art – ”She features in a massive way in all my work, in every painting.” Consequently, Peter Howson comes across as a man with many absorbing dimensions, most notably, I discover, a father completely devoted to his daughter. She has simply permeated his being.
He is taller and broader than I expect, with a large, handsome face that is both caricature and statesmanlike: a cross somewhere between one of his own portraits, Bill Clinton and Roald Dahl’s imaginary The Big Friendly Giant. Today he favours a checked shirt – the type preferred by country gents – a green and blue tie with a fat knot and a thick pair of beige chino-type trousers. His eyes, it must be said, are incredible, although it is virtually impossibly to tell what colour these saucers are. They are large and bulbous, like the dead eyes of fish, yet more animated, and peer at me from deep inside the sockets of his head. While these eyes are an ubiquitous sight in his powerful graphic images of urban man in extremis, it is somewhat unsettling to see them staring, unwaveringly, back at me, far removed from the paint-splattered demons of his canvas.
Lucie Howson is autistic and has a rare form of the disorder called Asperger Syndrome, characterised by complex communication difficulties, problems with social relationships and obsessional interests. ”When she was born,” he says, ”she tried to come out bum first and then she sort of turned round. Finally, when she did come out, something must have happened to her lungs and there must have been a slight brain injury. One of her lungs collapsed and she had a floppy windpipe, which makes her speak now in a very low, gravely tone. She was allergic to nearly everything. ”She had a hole in her heart which was the main thing, but the hole actually healed up by itself over the first few months to a year. But I knew there was something unusual about her because she didn’t talk until much later. By the time she was just over three she began speaking, but the communication difficulty was so problematic she began having tantrums that weren’t normal – head banging on the floor, that kind of thing.”
Throughout this short explanation, Howson is hunched on the edge of the chair, in the attitude of one of his tragic heroic figures, massive but vulnerable, leaning directly into the microphone of the tape-recorder. He tells me he is not brilliant at explaining the technical side of Lucie’s condition. ”I am actually Asperger Syndrome myself,” he reveals, casually, but totally unexpectedly. ”I’m a different form from Lucie, but I had many of the same mental problems as she had growing up, although not the same physical problems.” It is often said that both artists and writers throw up their sickness through their work, indeed art is found most often through malformity. Yet I am slightly taken aback by his revelation. I had no idea, though perhaps his body language gives some clue: introverted, reticent, shy, passive and, by his own admission, he possesses an inability to verbally express himself adequately when asked something specific. It is not that he does not want to, he says, more than he cannot seem to. When he falters, he suggests that I should speak to Terry about ”the details”.
He is disarmingly honest. Yet it is clear from the smile across his face, that when he talks about Lucie, she is his art; both the focus and the escape. His world is completely atrophied into his work and his daughter. Mentally, his early Ayr childhood was a ”complete nightmare”. The only thing that saved Howson was channelling all his energy into painting and drawing. He was ”terribly bullied at school”, and was also very dyslexic when it came to writing, forms, maps or anything like that. His quiet nature and obsession with art confused other children, who frequently labelled him a ”poof”. Jumping ahead of the chronology of the conversation, he tells me that when he joined the army – after an initial unhappy stint at Glasgow School of Art – he was put on map-reading courses and had no idea how to do it. ”They didn’t know what to do with me,” he reveals, almost apologetically, ”so I can understand how Lucie feels. Terry, my wife, is almost definitely the same as well, so between the two of us, we created the ultimate Asperger child. Asperger and autism is something people don’t understand very clearly because they are frightened of it. Anything physical is a lot easier to contend with but mental things, people always back away from them. My grandfather definitely had it, my father had it to some extent, I think, and my mother had it. So it runs in the family, but different people can handle it in different ways.”
He pauses, takes a sip from his tea, before launching back into his monologue. I catch myself looking up at this big, seemingly gentle, hulk of a man as he, somewhat disconcertingly, sits very still talking into the tape recorder, as if I wasn’t there. He is no slouch, however. In the past he boxed, regularly lifted weights and was a nightclub bouncer. Yet he appears alone, sharing past experiences and feelings about his life and the life of his daughter into a machine that just listens and records, but does not judge. It is a curious confession.
I am not overly surprised when he reveals he is very religious, praying to God every night. You cannot help liking him. ”Lucie has obviously got a fantastically weird form of autism,” he continues, ”in that she’s brilliant at reading and mathematics and remembering. She has a fantastic computer-like memory for any small details, yet she cannot remember what she did five minutes ago. She comes out with these incredible things that she’s only just learned, but can’t tie her shoelaces.” He proceeds to tell me of Lucie’s bizarre habits, including being terrified of changes in her daily timetable, knowing every stop on the London Underground, memorising hundreds of car registrations, insisting on using only certain coins when using the bus, fanning out her fingers in intricate shapes while talking and having no spatial awareness – meaning she only understands what she sees with her eyes. She does not understand the concept of anything behind her and she gets shocked when someone taps her on the shoulder.
The father, like the daughter, is a terrible worrier. He worries that everything that can go wrong does go wrong. Both of them have night terrors and Lucie will also fall asleep in the middle of eating. ”I fall asleep a lot when I’m not working,” he says, ”but if I’m working I’m fine. If not then I just suddenly doze off. I used to do it at dinner parties, or I used to just go up to my room without excusing myself and go to sleep. ”Lucie will suddenly wake up and start walking round the room and become another person. She turns into the incredible hulk and she’ll strangle me when I’m asleep, or even when I’m awake. I hardly sleep at all with Lucie around. I worry about Terry because she hardly gets any sleep, although she’s starting to sleep a bit better now Lucie’s a bit older. Lucie’s terrors are quite incredible. I used to have terrors about counting up to a million and things like that; I used to just count and count and count, and not be able to stop, the worst nightmare you could get. I used to have lots of dreams about death and things like that. ”If someone dies Lucie won’t say ‘that’s terrible’, but asks how deeply they are buried. She won’t show the anticipated kind of emotion. What was the minute they died? she’ll ask. A few days ago she said to me how many seconds until I see you? We had to work out the seconds.
”Strangely, when she wakes up from a nightmare she’s at her most lucid, she won’t be Asperger anymore. She’ll suddenly say things that are quite extraordinary. All the time her dreams are wide-eyed staring nightmares. She’ll walk around the room like a drunken man. Her sleepwalking is a monkey-like thing, hands down at her side, bent at the knees. If anyone was to see it they would be scared out of their wits. My night terrors were totally the most vivid dreams. Dickens had it as well, though I’m not trying to say that in a big-headed way I’m like Dickens or all these people. I read a lot now and I read a lot about this subject. The reason for Dickens’ imagination came from his dreams, not any other source. I think I’m rambling on a bit again.”
It is the weird, the manic looks in Lucie’s eyes and the obsession with detail that she displays which are the window of influence from which Howson looks out and sees part of himself. Whatever he paints – soldiers, dossers, drinkers, hard-men, boxers, girls, boys, women being raped, Chetniks or dogs – all have the distinctive Howson look. But it is really a look inspired by his daughter. The exaggerated physical and emotional, the hands and feet that are askew, the shrieking faces of mad people and lurching imposition of people feverishly searching for heroism are always inspired by the honesty of Lucie.
A recent and stunning painting, Jacqueline’s Dream, was inspired by the death of his younger sister a few months ago; she was very badly physically and mentally handicapped. It is a mass of wild seething, lurching, ripping and flailing, like a mental asylum, with madness all around and he portrays this asylum in which Jacqueline is visited by Lucie. In the picture Lucie can be seen with eyes wide open, hands at her mouth, the only person comforting the distressed figure amid a mass of others. According to Terry, Lucie was astonishing whenever she visited Jacqueline. ”She had so much empathy,” says Terry, ”and she automatically calmed down and talked, in a very quiet voice, to Jacqueline, who always responded. Everyone said Jacqueline couldn’t understand, but she turned her head for Lucie’s voice. Lucie would wipe round Jacqueline’s mouth, stroking her hands, while others were, in some ways, terrified. Lucie recognised there was an incredibly weak creature there needing help. ”
Asperger sufferers do have empathy and emotion, although it is often difficult to articulate. From about the age of two, Jacqueline was in a nursing home where everyone was majorly disabled. It was like a mad-house, full of people clutching. When she died, Peter did Jacqueline’s Dream because he needed to express her death. He didn’t cry at the funeral which was very emotional. But the painting is Peter’s articulation of his feelings. The body in the painting is Jacqueline but the face is Peter’s. He is not painting narcisstically, but as a way of communicating his inability to express himself verbally. Directly behind is Lucie, comforting.
Peter is saying so much about himself in that painting without saying a word. It is what makes his art brilliant. He can’t talk about his art, literally, because he cannot express his ideas properly unless they are on canvas.” Lucie rarely sits for Howson, her bubbling and manic energy refusing to keep her still. But the influence of the faces she pulls (”she has an incredible range of expressions”) and the contorted body positions she gets herself into – part of her condition – is found in his paintings. He puts his figures into these distorted positions, ”not because I can’t paint or draw, I do it intentionally to convey these weird poses and distortions, a reflection of her behaviour. If there’s something she’s not happy about she automatically crosses her hands over her body or face, which tells you how she is feeling. Her childhood frustrations were like mine, although I had my art to pour myself into. She can’t do that at the moment really, I don’t think. I’m not very good at this, talking about the work”. He trails off again. Asperger children have problems with conventional social skills. Lucie will go up to complete strangers and hug them and gets very attached to certain people. But often, inappropriate social skills are part of the problem. Lucie was not actually diagnosed Asperger until two years ago by a specialist. Until then she was simply seen as a problem or troublesome child. She now attends a unit at Hillpark Secondary School, in the South Side of Glasgow, which caters for her specific communication needs.
”Don’t ask me about the details, I can’t give you them. I can hardly remember things like the name of her school. I’ve been there but I don’t know where it is. This is part of the problem. Lucie’s got the opposite from me. She’s obsessed with birthdays, whereas I don’t even know the ages of my parents or anyone close to me, I keep forgetting. And I can’t really show emotion. Relationships always go bust because I refuse to talk. What saves me is my painting, because what painting does is takes the emotion out of myself, takes me out of myself, so I forget about myself, otherwise I’m just a raving idiot most of the time. ”It’s only when I’m working do I really function properly, but I have taught myself to function properly, which Lucie hasn’t done yet, and that’s why they have to be trained. They can actually teach themselves to function.”
So far, Lucie has shown no inclination or interest towards art, which is something of a disappointment to Howson, who turned 40 this year. yet she is quite amazed when he draws her a picture. ”I’ve done thousands of pictures of her,” he says, beaming. ”I do these magic drawings that are done with invisible ink with little pathways that she goes up and she has to uncover them with a magic pen. There are characters that she uncovers; it sounds babyish, but she loves it. I’ve got a whole folio full of thousands of drawings that I’ve done. We have things like Cecil the Ghost. She’s obsessed by ghosts and mummies. She likes to be wrapped up in bandages.
”Lucie wants to be reassured all the time, she wants to know that I’m with her for infinity. It’s got to be infinity. I’ve got to tell her that death isn’t the end that it carries on in a different form. I think that’s why she’s so fascinated by spirits and ghosts and we have to talk about infinity all the time. It’s also taken her a while to get used to me being away. She keeps asking why I can’t come back. I’ve tried to explain. I come up every two weeks, but that isn’t enough, I know that. ”When I left to go to London five years ago she must have thought I’d abandoned her. My guilt was incredible over that. When I was there, I blamed it partly on my stubborn condition, that I’ve always put myself before others. I don’t know the reason. My art is so important to me and I’m such a selfish bugger when it comes to art. But there’s other reasons, financial etc. If I didn’t work everything would fall apart, the whole lot, every single thing, including me as well. But Lucie is the most important thing in my life, totally. When I went to Bosnia [twice as Britain’s official war artist in 1992/3], she was really worried. She watched Sky TV every night and would say to my wife that I was going to die. She was showing emotion.” He pauses for a short time once again. ”I’ve lost track of what I was saying . . . ”I’m quite a religious person. I just say my prayers every night when I’m with her and she loves reading the Psalms. It’s the rhythm of the Psalms, she likes reading. She loves God and everything religious. It’s a reassurance thing as well. My whole idea is to be just a good father as best I can. I want to make sure I work hard enough and see as much of her as I can. See that she’s fulfilled.”
He looks up. ”I’m sorry. I’m rabbiting on too much again. I think that probably covers it.” It does. To get to the root of Peter Howson, to meet Lucie Howson, look closely at some of his paintings. They are worth a million words.