by Roderick Conway Morris

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Sandra Lousada
Eileen Hogan in her London studio.

British Artist Explores Poetry of Light in Enclosed Spaces

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 7 June 2013


Eileen Hogan has never lacked admirers, not least among her fellow artists, but how she achieves the effects she does in her work has proved difficult to analyze even for the most expert of eyes.

As Roger de Grey, then president of the Royal Academy, wrote to her in 1989: 'Your drawings are remarkable in that they are abstract, specific and atmospheric. I do not know how you do it. Moreover the translucency of color is as beautiful as any watercolor painting I have ever seen.'

Ms. Hogan likes to work on cycles of paintings related to the same place over long periods. This year she will have had shows at two venues in Britain devoted to a subject she has been exploring since 1997 (and some of these works will go on to the Yale Center for British Art next year).

The first of the exhibitions, of paintings and studies made at Little Sparta, the sculpture park created in Scotland by Ian Hamilton Finlay, was held at Roche Court in Wiltshire, England, in February and March. The second, larger display, 'Eileen Hogan at Little Sparta,' opens at the Fleming Collection in London on Tuesday and runs through Aug. 17.

Born in South London to a Gaelic-speaking Irish father and to a partly Irish mother, the artist currently works at Pembroke Studios, a charming group of red-brick artists' studios built around a garden courtyard in West Kensington at the end of the 19th century. The studio she uses was occupied for 60 years by her friend and colleague the painter Leonard Rosoman, and her neighbors include David Hockney.

'I've never wanted to do anything but just draw and paint, and I stuck to it during a long period when drawing and painting were deeply unfashionable,' Ms. Hogan said when I visited her there recently. 'There was no art in my family, no pictures on the wall. But I always drew and painted from as long ago as I can remember. Camberwell College of Arts, the local art school, ran classes for schoolchildren on Saturday mornings, which were wonderful.'

At the age of 16, she went to Camberwell College to study art full time.

'The ethos of the college was then very much that of Euan Uglow, William Coldstream and the Euston Road School, which put an enormous emphasis on looking at things closely,' she said. 'It was a very concentrated way of learning to observe very carefully.

'It had its disadvantages in that it was quite restrictive, but it taught you the discipline of working from the same spot and taking in what you saw with great intensity. I don't think that watching like this is what people do unless they are forced to do it.'

Suburban South London might not seem the most promising of subjects, but Ms. Hogan found a kind of pastoral poetry in the green oases between the endless rows of terraced houses.

'I started painting Tooting Common when I was a student at Camberwell,' she said. 'I used to walk across the Common when I was still at school and it was a moment for reflection and observing things. I think that the whole process of walking, thinking and drawing goes right back to then. And the idea that what I am painting is a record of an encounter.'

She went on painting the common over a long period, during which she graduated, went on to do further studies at the Royal Academy Schools and the Royal College of Art. She returned to Camberwell as a lecturer in 1975, eventually rising to become dean and professor.

Her long-term interest in lettering and books stimulated her to found the Camberwell Press in 1984, producing beautifully designed and crafted limited editions of poetry, letters, wood engravings and prints, which are now sought-after collectors' items. In 1997 Ms. Hogan resigned from Camberwell College to devote herself to her own work.

A major influence on Ms. Hogan's artistic life was a journey that she made when she was 17.

'I hitchhiked to Greece and took a box of paints with me and I found there a completely different quality of light,' she said. 'Light has always excited me, it intrigues me. In England it's constantly changing but in Greece it was incredibly bright and unchanging. But I found the best way to deal with this light was to observe its effects from inside looking out; to paint it as it came filtered through shutters or through the slats of canopies over the terraces of tavernas and cafes, where I tried to catch its strange, flickering, almost mesmerizing qualities.'

Before finishing her studies at the Royal College of Art, Ms. Hogan spent a year in Greece in 1970-71 on a scholarship at the British School at Athens, a postgraduate research institute of Hellenic studies.

'Spending more time in Greece made me more conscious of what I was actually doing when I was painting. It made me more aware of the geometry of what I was painting, the structure of the horizontals and verticals of light and shade. And these lines have been very characteristic of my painting as far back as my time in Greece and my Tooting Common pictures,' she said.

In 1998 Ms. Hogan bought a derelict mews cottage in central London, just to the north of Marble Arch, which she later discovered had once been a brothel that was closed down by the police (nostalgic former clients, advanced in years, have occasionally rung the doorbell late at night). Through this move the artist quite fortuitously came upon another manifestation of the 'green spaces in urban settings,' as she describes them, that have been a consistent presence in her oeuvre. The cottage forms part of the Portman Estate, which developed the area in the second half of the 18th century, with grand townhouses and mews built around private garden squares enclosed by railings.

'I found myself walking around these squares and I set out to see if I could not get the keys to the gardens so that I could paint them. I think they appealed to me because I am much happier dealing with enclosed spaces than large landscapes,' she said.

'But being allowed to have sets of keys took quite a bit of negotiation, firstly with the Portland Estate, which still owns Portland Square and then with the residents' associations of the other three squares: Manchester, Montague and Bryanston.

'It was in these squares that I also started doing my first snow paintings. I'd avoided this before because I felt that pictures like this would look contrived and sentimental. But I was inspired by seeing these squares just after snow had fallen and trying to catch that incredible feeling of total silence you get on such occasions. The paintings are almost monochrome but provide a lot of challenges in trying to reflect the minutely subtle tonalities of the light and shadows.'

Shortly before moving to her new house a chance commission took her to the Highlands of Scotland. On the way back she stopped at Little Sparta, the 4-acre, or 1.6-hectare, estate southwest of Edinburgh that Mr. Finlay, Britain's leading concrete poet, who died in 2006, transformed over a period of 40 years into a sculpture park, adorned with inscriptions, columns, obelisks, sundials, temples and other pieces that he designed.

'I felt a shock of recognition because of all the classical references familiar from Greece,' Ms. Hogan said. 'And at the same time I found the particular quality of light there, which is incredibly unstable, fascinating.

'Curiously enough, Little Sparta, too, is a garden in an enclosed space - even if in this case it is enclosed by the Pentland Hills - a green space carved out, by Ian Hamilton Finlay, of a very bleak and not at all green expanse of landscape.'

Ms. Hogan has returned to Little Sparta time and again since then to make hundreds of drawings and paintings. Out of these have come a superb series of monumental paintings of a cherry grove with three large beehives. The beehives were not built by Mr. Finlay himself but are found objects, each decorated with appropriately resonant names and the registration numbers of three old Scottish fishing boats: Bountiful UL 238, Sweet Promise FH 172 and Golden Gain FR 59. The beehive paintings will be exhibited at the Fleming Collection with other images inspired by the gardens.

Some three decades ago the painter Carel Weight commented that Ms. Hogan's work was 'more about mood than reality.' The suggestive force of her multilayered images evokes much else. In the case of the beehive pictures one has a sense almost of an entire Chekhov play distilled in paint.

'The whole idea of presence and absence runs through all of my work. And when I am working on a series of pictures the memory of the place is as important as the place itself,' she said. 'I find painting a way of expressing subtle and elusive emotions that I wouldn't begin to know how to describe in words.'

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024