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‘Appreciation: John Hoyland’ by Andrew Lambirth

It’s difficult to believe that John Hoyland is dead. He was a man so full of life, with such appetite for living, that his absence from our midst makes no sense. Even when grievously ill in the past months, he was more likely to engage in anecdote and tell jokes than complain of his increasingly frail condition. The spirit of the man continued to shine brilliantly despite the adverse circumstances.

His last exhibition, all new paintings, opened at the Beaux Arts Gallery in Cork Street in April. At the private view, Hoyland, although already much reduced physically, sat in the midst of his vividly coloured and exhilarating work, and accepted the homage of friends and admirers. Despite his waning energy, he talked to young and old alike, new recruit and old freeloader, with familiar warmth and infectious good humour. The wonder of it was that he had produced such a vibrant body of new work when mortally ill; and in that determination lies the key to his success as a man and an artist.

John Hoyland was born in Sheffield in 1934, and studied at Sheffield College of Art and the Royal Academy Schools in London, before discovering the light and colour of Europe in the late 1950s. He never looked back to the industrial grime of Sheffield, but geared his art to celebratory colour and abstract form. Early influences included Matisse and de Staël, and then the American Abstract Expressionist painters, a number of whom he came to know when he started to visit the States in the early 1960s. So began a crucial relationship with American art and culture that informed Hoyland’s early work and led to him living for a time in New York. Although in 1973 he settled back in England, he retained certain transatlantic mannerisms: in vocabulary and manner of speech (a slight but pleasing drawl), and in his personal appearance (a fondness for cowboy boots and denim). However, in thought and behaviour he was typically English in his entrenched and well-guarded individuality.

Hoyland had a passion for travel, visiting Jamaica regularly with his beautiful second wife Beverley Heath, and deriving much inspiration from the visual appeal of exotic flora and fauna. But although his sense of colour needed regular boosts from foreign milieux, his shape invention could be sparked by the patterns of cracked pavements or bathroom tiles. He turned everything to good account, filling sketchbooks with ideas for paintings and long lists of possible titles. He was extremely articulate, enjoyed writing both poetry and polemic, and was never afraid to make his opinions known, however confrontational.

He disliked being labelled ‘one of Britain’s leading abstract painters’, preferring simply to be seen as an artist. His imagery, which had once been entirely abstract, in his later years became ever more eclectic, and recognisable figurative elements appeared with increasing frequency. Birds were a favourite motif, along with sun, moon and stars, and Hoyland even included the human figure in some of his canvases. In the last couple of decades he accessed a late style which was wildly inventive and lyrical – an ‘anything goes’, no-holds-barred manner. ‘The less you impose, the fresher it is,’ he said. He explained the career trajectory: ‘When you’re young, you want to show everybody what a tough guy you are, how strong you can paint and how you can knock everybody around. As you get older you want to show how intelligent you are, how you know the game and how subtle and penetrating you can be. Then when you get old, you’re just compelled to paint what you don’t know. That’s what’s happened to me.’

True Sheffield grit enabled him to come to terms with this potentially destabilising freedom and to exploit it for all he was worth. Unlike some of his more timid – or less open – contemporaries, Hoyland was always prepared to give up a tried and successful manner in order to break new ground. His ability to reinvent himself as an artist was remarkable, but the public’s taste tends to be retrogressive rather than progressive, and at the moment Hoyland’s work of the 1960s and 70s is the most sought after of his career. His latest work is too strongly flavoured for many, but I would argue that’s because it is ahead of its era in its visionary intensity. We probably need more time to elapse before we can find a perspective on this impetuous, though structured richness. I’ve heard people dismiss it as vulgar, but actually it’s too raw, too molten to be contained by ordinary pigeonholes. Hoyland was going for broke in his late work, and usual responses are not always adequate for such radical departures.

I will remember Hoyland for his warmth of friendship, his wicked wit and his unbounded artistic invention, but above all for his generosity of spirit. That generosity imbued everything he did, and filled his paintings to the brim. He was one of the great life-enhancers – in his own person, and through his art. It is far too early to make a dispassionate assessment of his stature as an artist, but I predict that when the dust of current fads and fashions has settled, Hoyland will emerge as a figure of international importance, a painter of lasting appeal and significance, whose late work will prove to be some of the most original of our times.

© Andrew Lambirth / The Spectator