Alongside his distinguished career as a painter, Howard Hodgkin has also long been a collector of note. As a schoolboy at Eton he was given to bouts of running away but while briefly in situ his art master, Wilfrid Blunt (the brother of Anthony), borrowed a 17th-century Indian painting of a chameleon from the Royal Collection to enliven a lesson and Hodgkin was hooked. He started buying Indian pictures then and has continued ever since.
‘My collection has nothing to do with art history,’ he says. ‘It is entirely to do with the arbitrary inclinations of one person.’ It is a method that has, nevertheless, resulted in one of the world’s great collections of Indian art. Hodgkin has made several attempts to stop buying more but he’s a recidivist, not least because ‘a professional artist sells what he makes. Buying art fills the void that comes as each work leaves the studio.’
The fruit of his compulsion, 115 pictures that alternately dazzle and mystify, is now on show in Visions of Mughal India at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. It doesn’t quite amount to an overview of Indian painting from the mid-16th century to the mid-19th because some genres, notably religious images, don’t much interest Hodgkin. The exhibition does, however, give a vivid account of the different Indian schools and the sometimes extraordinary quality of its usually anonymous artists.
The Mughal school of painting was founded by the Emperor Akbar (reigned 1556–1605), the grandson of the dynastic head Babur. He encouraged a court art that married Persian miniaturist techniques with local Indian manners and European influence. The style spread — and was adapted — across India, from the Punjab to the Deccan Sultanates. The repertoire of subjects encompassed court life, portraiture, wildlife and hunting scenes, all depicted with a love of pattern and with pale green as a signature colour.