A distinctive portrayal of painter Peter Howson at work.


Devil of a time: Peter Howson


Charlie Paul’s film about the Scottish painter Peter Howson adopts a totally novel approach. It’s a documentary that takes its title from that of a painting by Howson and the film, photographed by Paul himself, is largely devoted to showing the details of the painting process step by step as undertaken in the artist’s studio in Glasgow. Fellow painters and those with a deep interest in this art form will be the prime audience for this documentary, but Howson proves well able to discuss both his inspiration and his technique in terms that will be found meaningful by viewers less well versed in the art. It is highly relevant to mention that Howson is an artist who, taking months over the painting of a large canvas such as this one, allows his instincts to dictate spontaneous changes from the original concept as the work proceeds, so that is what we see here. Talking about the process, he reveals his own unassuming character as when he remarks that it involves “changing mistakes and making new ones”.


Having approached this film knowing nothing of the artist, I found it an intriguing insight into the work of a contemporary painter with a vision all his own, a man who, dubious about much modern art, takes the view that art should be accessible, something to delight and inform. Yet that belief doesn’t prevent him from choosing subject matter such as that of ‘Prophecy’ which started out as a comment on the anarchy of civilisation today, incorporates a warning of an impending apocalypse and offers ultimately an infinity of ideas. El Greco is an influence on his work but it is surely his own religious beliefs that explain the central presence in ‘Prophecy’ of the figure of Christ on the cross.


There is much here to fascinate the viewer and Paul opts for a music track that seems to fit the mood admirably yet largely consists of extracts from pre-existing works by the Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks. Less satisfactory is Paul’s decision not to include sufficient details for Prophecy to emerge as a biopic of Howson. Because his life feeds so much into what he needs to express on canvas, his history is important to a full understanding of his work. It is all too typical of what we get here that, while the film refers to his reaction to the horrors of war seen in Bosnia as contributing to the breakdown of his marriage, we learn nothing of his wife or indeed of his role as a British war artist. We are told of his involvement with drugs and alcohol, but without getting the full perspective including the fact that his Christian beliefs so clearly apparent here actually developed after treatment for his addictions in 2000. His autistic daughter Lucie does make an appearance, but too briefly for it to be meaningful and one has to turn to the internet for facts, including some mentioned above, that ought to have been covered in the film.


The fate of this particular painting when put up for sale in New York provides the film with a climax and Howson’s comments and Paul’s visuals combine to give us an insight into a very individual painter. Yet we do not feel that we are getting a complete rounded picture.




Featuring  Peter Howson, Lucie Howson, Matthew Flowers.


Dir Charlie Paul, Pro Lucy Paul, Ph Charlie Paul, Ed Joby Gee.


Itch Film/Creative Scotland/BBC Scotland-Koenig Pictures.
85 mins. UK/USA. 2019. Rel: 14 June 2019. Cert. 12A.