Artist Peter Howson returns after depression battle

Peter Howson's new work will be on display in Ayr. Picture: Jane Barlow
Peter Howson's new work will be on display in Ayr. Picture: Jane Barlow
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PETER Howson battled severe depression for five years before being admitted to hospital. Now he’s in recovery, from drugs, drink and his personal demons, and he’s painting again.

Music flows out to meet us through the door of Peter Howson’s studio, a female voice, haunting, otherworldly. She is a nun, Howson says. Her work is quite hard to find because she doesn’t record commercially. He thinks she has one of the most beautiful voices in the world. But beauty can be dangerous. “I need to put it off now,” he says, for a moment flustered and fragile. “Give the system a rest. I’m sorry.”

But, he asks, would I mind if he finished off a bit of painting? He picks a big brush from a table, where containers of them are arranged neatly, bristles upwards, according to size, and a carefully ordered palette. That would be his Asperger’s Syndrome, that love of order.

On the easel is a large painting of a woman with a small child in her arms and fear in her eyes. The child is wrapped in a blanket, as if gathered up in a hurry, one foot hanging awkwardly down. Behind her are burning buildings. That foot draws the eye, the fragile little curve of it. Is the child sleeping, or worse? What are they running from? He dabs carefully at the grey-blue-brown of the background, the colour of a dark sky with smoke in it.

He started this painting about four years ago and will finish it in time for his new exhibition at the Maclaurin Art Gallery in Ayr, which opens tomorrow. There was one quite like it in his show about the Irish famine at the St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art in Glasgow in 2009. “It was very uncontrolled, very out of control, it was overblown as well, generally not very good, so I decided to repaint the subject to make it a more general theme. It’s a lot more controlled now.” He stands back, as if for a moment unsure. “I mean, it’s getting there.”

The recovery of control is important. Howson speaks like a man clawing back control – of his art, of his life. For the last five years, he has been battling mental illness, and has spent much of the last year in psychiatric wards. Now, back at last in his studio and working for a new show, he seems both determined to succeed and almost afraid to believe it is possible. “I didn’t think I would ever do it,” he says, softly. “I really didn’t.”

The Maclaurin show is called ‘From Death to Life’. For many artists this would be over dramatic, but not Howson, and not now. He has had a season in hell, one from which he feared he might not return. “Sooner or later I would have taken an overdose of something, or the drugs would have killed me, or I would have had a stroke or something,” he says, with blank frankness.

Dante’s Inferno is one of his favourite books. “I was reading one particular piece by a friend of Dante’s in Florence saying that Dante was able to go to hell and come back again. He always came back scarred, more scarred each time, but was always able to continue. I think I’ve been in hell just that bit too long and been scarred very badly.” Then he adds, as if he can hardly believe it himself: “But I’m better now.”

He shows me work from the Ayr show based on the drawings he did in hospital, beleaguered figures beseiged by writhing horrors, nightmares made flesh. But there is also new work, “more hopeful stuff, lighter in tone, some of it more classical”. And a series of work about Burns: “Partly because I love Burns, and partly a commercial exercise because I need to make money. I haven’t worked for a year and a half and I’m skint!”

But now, he has a full programme of exhibitions for the next year, and a major commission for a series of religious works for a private collector. “I’m excited just to be back. Having an opening to go to, to see what people think of the work, to meet people and go for a meal afterwards and generally enjoy life. Be sociable again, instead of being a recluse.”

There is something tenacious about his bearing. Having tasted recovery, he has no intention of letting go. He is 54, and his experiences have left him looking older and thinner (he lost four stones during his illness), less of a bear, but not diminished. His appetite regained, he devours the two mutton pies his studio assistant Douglas has delivered. His grey-blue eyes are intense, deep. As an Asperger’s sufferer, he had to teach himself to look people in the eye. Now, meeting his eyes feels like looking into immeasurable depths, that if you looked too long you might start to see places you don’t want to.

About five years ago, when he started to become ill, Howson put his financial and professional affairs into the hands of a team of legal guardians. I went through them to get this interview. They warned me he is fragile, tires easily, may be impatient, but he is more relaxed than I expected. Howson was always good company, magnetic, vulnerably honest. His Asperger’s means that he has fewer filters than most of us; he tells it like it is.

“Someone who knows me well said that when people are with me, they get caught up in this kind of whirlwind, it can either destroy them or it can make them, and very few stand the test. So many relationships, working, emotional, sexual, whatever, fall apart, because I open myself out, I’m open for abuse. And yet I’m manipulative as well. It’s ironic, the manipulative Asperger’s sufferer also gets manipulated.”

He wants to know if I’ve spoken to the guardians – “these strange beings, like something out of Doctor Who”. He’s not supposed to talk to the press without their say-so. I sense also that he is chaffing at this curtailment of his freedom. “I think I’ve made my guardians age tremendously,” he laughs. “I’m a lot of work. Or I was. I’m not quite so bad now that I’m getting better.”

He wants to do this interview, he says. There is still a lot of interest in his work, in Scotland and internationally. He wants people to know where he has been for the last year. “People are still tremendously supportive, but they haven’t known where I’ve been because I haven’t been allowed to talk about it. People just think I’ve disappeared off the face of the earth. There have been lots of rumours flying about. I want people to understand about mental illness.”

He fought his illness for a long time, kept working. His major commission for the Catholic church, the depiction of the martyrdom of St John Ogilvie, painted for the newly refurbished St Andrews Cathedral in Glasgow, was completed in the teeth of that struggle. A BBC 4 crew filmed him working for months on the painting, then destroying it and starting over. The title of their documentary, The Madness of Peter Howson, now seems strangely prophetic.

“I don’t think painting John Ogilvie made me ill. I think it was other things – pressure of work, and being involved with people who were probably taking advantage of me at the time. I think I felt trapped. But I think I was manipulating them as well, because I get a buzz out of it. I always have got a buzz out of doing naughty things, I suppose.”

He split up with his fiancée, Annie, with whom he’d lived for more than five years, and started drinking again. He had been dry since he was treated for alcohol and cocaine addiction in Castle Craig, Peebles, in 2000, which is also when he converted to Christianity. Douglas speaks of finding bottles hidden all over the studio. “I suppose mixing it with the drugs wasn’t so good,” Howson says, succinctly.

“I was on the drug that Michael Jackson was taking before he died. It felt like you were having morphine or heroin. It became like I was waiting all day to take it, just waiting on this chance to go into oblivion. Then I couldn’t get off it. I was never that interested in Michael Jackson as a musician, but I found him quite a fascinating character. And the way he died, I can totally identify with that, I can totally understand how it happened.” He fumbles in his pocket for a light. “Do you mind if I have a cigarette? It’s the only vice I’ve got left. I’m trying to give it up but the doctors told me not to do it too quickly.”

One night, about 15 months ago, he was hospitalised with “severe depression and self-harm”. “The first hospital I was in was a private hospital, but it cost a bloody fortune, so then we ran out of money and they had to send me to the NHS. Nothing against the NHS, but it was just totally different. Can you imagine being in a mental hospital in a room at night, every night screaming, shouting, fighting, arguing, people wandering around, attacking each other. Like a nightmare. Like Bedlam. The only thing that’s changed is you’re not chained to the wall.”

His one consolation was his work. He drew all the time. I’m reminded of John Bellany, coming round after his liver transplant, drawing to prove to himself he was still alive. Howson has always had an eye for nightmare, the writhing compulsive energy of it. Now he brought his knowledge of Goya, Hogarth and Hieronymous Bosch to capture the half-real, half-imagined chaos of his personal asylum.

There are other, quieter works too, portaits of the other patients: the woman who simply sobbed all the time, and the one who stood and stared out of a window, barefoot, a dressing gown loose around her shoulders. “I was known as the cigarette man, that was the only way I survived by having huge amounts of cigarettes. I stopped people from getting at me or attacking me or whatever by giving them cigarettes.”

In the summer he was discharged to attend a major exhibition of his work at Flowers Gallery in New York. “There was a lot of debate as to whether I would be able to go, but finally the guardians decided that I should go, but only if they went as well. I think in the end about five of us went – and I still got into trouble. I had a big binge over there, just lost it basically.”

In the 1980s, when Howson was the toast of the art world, and his paintings were bought by the likes of Madonna, David Bowie and Bob Geldof, he would fly to New York on Concord for fun. “It was my playground, it’s got so many memories of the wild days when I was young. When I had the inclination and the money, I used to fly over there whenever I wanted and have a blow-out, so the same thing happened again, I suppose.” He admits he remembers nothing about the exhibition opening, but the show was a sell-out. Ironically, most of the paintings were depictions of hell.

When he returned, he was hospitalised again, his condition worse than before. “This time, I couldn’t work. I didn’t do any work at all, I didn’t do any reading, I couldn’t walk properly, couldn’t see properly, wasn’t interested in music, I just wanted to sleep all the time.” Douglas says, quietly: “I just thought we were never going to see Peter Howson the artist again.”

He says he empathised with the biblical character of Job, afflicted until he loses everything except his life. “I kept on praying to get better. Nothing was happening. It felt like making a phonecall to God and he wasn’t in, or he was engaged or something. But I haven’t lost my faith. I struggled with it quite a lot, but I’ve never not believed.”

What changed everything was a conversation with Terri, Howson’s ex-wife. They have a daughter together, but split after Howson returned from the traumatic period he spent in Bosnia as an official war artist. “We started speaking a lot when I was in hospital. She’s always been a great friend and support. When you’re suffering from depression and you feel suicidal, the last thing you want is someone to say ‘Get a grip’, but that’s exactly what Terri did. She told me in the best possible way to pull myself together. About a week later, I chucked all the tablets and started to be able to see again, walk properly again, I started to not shake when I was drawing, I started to laugh again, I started to really want to see my daughter and be with her and be a good father.”

Howson’s daughter, Lucie, is now 26. She also suffers from autism, a different form from his. When he speaks about her, his face softens. He calls her every night at five o’clock on the dot (this distinction is clearly important to both of them). “She’s a great girl, the love of my life I suppose, the greatest love I could ever have. We’ve almost got something telepathic going on.”

There is a painting in the Maclaurin Gallery show called ‘Recovery’, a muscular figure in a ripped white vest lunging forward. It is reminiscent of Howson’s early work, of the fighters and hardmen whose physicality and desperation he captured so well. At once, it is looking back and striving towards the future.

Howson says he is working now in the way he did then, getting up in the small hours, and working through into the evenings. He talks with vigour about having ideas for new work, and about new techniques he has developed, and wanting to experiment. He is managing his Asperger’s. He is even less of a control freak (“That’s debatable!” puts in a laughing Douglas from the other side of the studio). It’s almost as if he is afraid to stop. “I’m petrified of not working now, it keeps me sane. If I’m working I’m fine, if I’m not working I’m not fine. In hospital the second time when I wasn’t working it was hellish.”

He says Terri, too, has noticed shades of the old Howson returning. “She said to me one day ‘You’re just like you were before you went to Bosnia. Instead of being a miserable bastard and a self-pitying git, you’ve turned back into a human being again, more like who you used to be.’ It’s a great feeling, I feel young again, fit and healthy and mentally brilliant. I just hope and pray, by the grace of God, that I keep on doing the right thing.”

• Peter Howson: From Death to Life is at The Maclaurin Art Gallery in Ayr from tomorrow until 14 April, tel: 01292 443708,