Peter Howson is one of Britain's most important contemporary artists and the country's most recent Official War Artist. Although born in London in 1958, Howson is commonly associated with the new 'Glasgow Boys', a group of figurative artists who rose to fame during the 1970s and '80s.
Dropping out of Glasgow School of Art in 1997, Howson spent a short time in the army and then worked as a warehouseman and bouncer, living in a gymnasium. Here he met the boxers, dossers, squaddies and drinkers who populate so much of his work.
Mr. Great Heart is a distillation of the many people Howson holds recorded in his memory through his personal experiences, from the rougher parts of Glasgow to the war-torn towns of Bosnia. The boxer is a recurrent motif - Howson was himself a boxer - and signifies for him the triumph of the underdog. Howson was inspired in 1996, by reading Bunyan's Bilgrim's Progress and the novels of John Buchan, to explore through in his works the strength of the human spirit.
Peter Howson's earlier works have a narrative format, describing episodes which reflect the darker side of human nature. It was only in the late 1980s and early 1990s that he began to focus more closely on the characters who populate his work, presenting single figures whose grossly exaggerated faces and bodies convey a conflicting range of emotions, from anger and despair to pride and hope.
Although Mr. Great Heart can be termed a portrait it is very much a representation of a type of person rather than a specific individual. While on the one hand it conjures up the earthy, proud streetfighters of Glasgow's Gallowgate it also evokes the threat and violence Howson witnessed in Bosnia and the rawness of human brutality.
Howson's painting technique exhibits two distinctly different approaches. One is the free, impastoed and gestural style which lent so much strength to his Bosnia works. The other is a smooth, slick, highly finished technique, demonstrated in Mr. Great Heart, which models the solid, muscular bodies and faces of his characters and heightens their sense of the grotesque. This is enhanced by his working on a large scale with the characteristic use of a monochrome palette and shadow to sculpt and distort the figure.
The influence of war
Following the outbreak of war in Bosnia, Howson became obsessed with the images of suffering and human devastation reported in the press. Driven by his personal desire for adventure and the need to draw attention to that country's plight, he travelled to Bosnia in Spring 1993 as the Official War Artist (OWA) under the sponsorship of The Times newspaper. The resulting exhibition of his work were met with both controversy and critical acclaim, like those of his OWA predecessor, John Keane (b.1954), whose work is also represented in the Ferens collection.
The Ferens has significant holdings of work by Official War Artists, particularly of the Second WorldWar, together with examples of work by artists whose 'non-war' work still reflects the influences of war. Paul Nash's (1889-1946) Michaelmas Landscape, 1943, and John Piper's (1903-92) Marchlyn Mawr, c.1947-8, are notable examples. Similarly, John Keane's (b.1954) Fairy Tales of London, 1992, offers a further contemporary perspective of the impact of war upon a leading artist.