It may be the most significant commission of Peter Howson’s career. The Herald can reveal that the popular Scottish artist, 51, has completed his depiction of Saint John Ogilvie for the Archdiocese of Glasgow, and it will be formally revealed to the public next April. A BBC Scotland documentary, The Madness of Peter Howson, will be broadcast on Monday, showing the tumultuous process he went through to create the striking painting.
As The Herald reported earlier this year, Howson completed a full version of the painting, complete with a vast crowd scene, before destroying it and starting again with another more simple image, which will now form one of the highlights of the renovation of St Andrew’s Cathedral in Glasgow.
Last night, Archbishop Mario Conti said he was delighted with the finished work. “It is a painting of great intensity which will not only be highly regarded as a work of art, but will also be an aid to prayer and reflection, which is, after all, its primary function” he said. It shows John Ogilvie just before the noose is tightened, revealing both the heroism, but also the sadness of the occasion. “My hope is that it will become a much-loved image which people will travel to see, and from which they will draw inspiration.”
Howson received the commission in 2008, for a work which is 24ft by 18ft. But one day, despite having worked on it for eight months, he felt he had to destroy the first version of the Martyrdom. The huge picture would have been one of the largest crowd scenes, with more than 600 figures, ever painted by a Scottish artist, a spectacular mob scene depicting the death by hanging of the Scottish saint. The dramatic destruction led to Howson rethinking the work and now it is a single “peaceful” figure of St John Ogilvie, lit by a column of light.
St John Ogilvie was a Scottish priest hanged in Glasgow in 1615, at the age of 36, after being tried for treason and tortured, unsuccessfully, to reveal the names of other Catholics. Howson said: “Since I was very young I have wanted to do a major painting for the church – I have been looking at Michael-angelo’s Sistine Chapel, I’d love to do something like that, I’d love to do something major – that sounds very big-headed – but I suppose I am in a way.”
The programme follows Howson as he works on the painting over two years, including times where he struggles with financial and health problems. It also shows that the artist sought inspiration by going with the Archbishop on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The Madness of Peter Howson, produced by Hand Pict Productions, is narrated by Peter Capaldi, who attended Glasgow School of Art at the same time as the painter.