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John Hoyland The Last Paintings

Exhibition at Millennium Gallery showcases works created by one of Britain’s leading abstract painters in the last years of his life.

John Hoyland Studio July 2010 Nick Smith

John Hoyland in his studio, 2010.

Nick Smith

John Hoyland is renowned for his bold use of colour and inventive forms. The late, Sheffield-born artist's tireless innovation pushed the boundaries of abstract painting and cemented him as one of the most inventive British artists of the 20th century. Following the opening of The Last Paintings, the new Hoyland exhibition at Millennium Gallery, I chatted to Wiz Patterson-Kelly, co-curator of the exhibition, to find out more about the artist, the exhibition, and plans to continue bringing his work to new audiences.

For those who may be new to Hoyland's work, can you tell us a bit about his life and his art?

John Hoyland was born in 1934, the son of a tailor, Kenneth Hoyland. His mother Kathleen encouraged him to explore art from a young age, allowing him to stay up late in the evening only if he was drawing.

He attended Sheffield School of Arts and Crafts at age 11 and later went on to gain a place at the Royal Academy Schools in London. He was taught in the traditional figurative style, as was typical in those days, painting land and townscapes of the Sheffield area. In 1956 he attended the exhibition Modern Art in the United States at Tate Gallery, London - his first encounter with American abstract painting.

This exhibition had a great influence on him and led him to experiment with abstraction. His final diploma show consisted of only abstract work, which so horrified the president of the Royal Academy that he ordered it down from the walls.

Hoyland always pushed against the boundaries. He wouldn’t let galleries dictate where his work led, experimenting when it would have been easier to stick where he was safest in the eyes of the commercial art world. His son Jeremy remarked, “He never painted for money, only for passion.”

John Hoyland Restless Heart

Restless Heart

John Hoyland

The Last Paintings is on display at Millennium Gallery. Could you tell us more about the theme and curation of the exhibition?

Fellow curator Sam Cornish and I had a hard task choosing the paintings for the exhibition as Hoyland painted many evocative and striking works in his final years. The last painting, 'Moon in the Water', which has never before been on display, was an obvious starting point.

Hoyland’s meditations on the deaths of close friends, coupled with reconciling himself with his own mortality gave rise to a tremendous creative ‘coming of age’ in his work. A distillation of all his years of experience with form and colour enabled him to make paintings that are barometers of human emotion. We chose the works we felt told the story of John’s final years in the most concise way possible.

John Hoyland Elegy For Terry Frost

Elegy (For Terry Frost)

John Hoyland

This final series of paintings pays homage to some of his artistic heroes and commemorates his artist friends. Who will we see remembered in the pieces, and how?

Hoyland painted a number of elegies to close friends who passed away, two of which are included in this show. The first painting seen on arrival is 'Elegy to Terry Frost' (2003). The painting references signature colours Frost used in his work and is said to refer to the sea around Frost’s home in Newlyn, Cornwall, where Hoyland frequently visited him. Another dedication is 'Souvenir for Patrick' (2005) after artist Patrick Caulfield, Hoyland’s closest friend for many years, whose death left a huge gap in his life.

He also painted dedications to artists who inspired him, such as Vincent Van Gogh. 'Night Sky' (2005) is one such work. Hoyland discovered Van Gogh’s work while at Sheffield Art College when he saw 'Starry Night' in a book in the college library. In 'Night Sky' you can see the swirling deep blue of night, punctured by bright white stars and in the centre, a shadowy void, perhaps alluding to the troubled artist’s loneliness.

John Hoyland on Sheffield High Street aged 18

John Hoyland as a young man on Sheffield high street.

The exhibition commemorates the tenth anniversary of Hoyland's passing. What other plans do you have to celebrate his legacy and to bring his art to new audiences?

After more than five decades of dedication to his art practice, Hoyland passed away in 2011. He had emergency heart surgery in 2008 and never fully recovered.

His widow, Beverley Heath-Hoyland, has looked after his legacy since, working hard to ensure Hoyland’s work is seen by new audiences. We are currently working toward exhibitions in London, LA, New York and Sweden, as well as publishing a book to coincide with the Millennium Gallery exhibition, also titled The Last Paintings. We aim to keep Hoyland’s paintings alive in the world for future generations to enjoy.

Wiz Patterson-Kelly is co-curator of the exhibition and co-editor with Sam Cornish of the upcoming book The Last Paintings, published by Ridinghouse.

by Felicity Jackson (she/her)
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