JOHNNY: Before we start, I have to ask you about your dealings with an Iranian princeling and an epic book that you were asked to produce some paintings for...
JH: Mr Hormozi – a wonderful, wonderful man. He was a member of the dynasty that was the Shas before the present shah, the one that got toppled. And he owned the Tehran Times and one Thursday there was an earthquake just outside of Tehran. He scrapped the front page and said in bold, bold letters – do nothing else this evening and weekend, but load your car up with milk and blankets and go visit this site, and Tehran was empty, everyone just did it, you know. And he decided that the world could be changed for the better via paintings. You know, rather in the way pop concerts and music now. So he went around commissioning good works of art that had some kind of meaning, you know positive, good works. And he proposed that when the book was finished he would leave it outside on the main steps of a famous railway station. Just one copy, so you know someone would pick it up, word of mouth would go around, the book would become famous and the world would be changed for the better.
JOHNNY: Only the one copy?
JH: Yes, initially, just release one book. What became of it I don’t know, when I last saw him he was living in Frieburg, Switzerland. We went into his house and he was very, very hospitable, charming, charming family. I lost touch with him. I guess he’s still living in Switzerland.
JOHNNY: Did you do any paintings for him and did he pay you for them?
JH: Yeah, I did about nine – he has them and I was paid for the paintings. My agent also represented another six artists who worked for him and the backlog of the payments was getting a bit high, so me and my agent went to meet him on a Friday afternoon to see him about it. He went yes, here’s a cheque, go down to the Melli Bank of Iran opposite Harrods and they’ll cash you the cheque. So I said, ‘It’s almost three ‘o clock now, the bank will almost be shut,’ he said, ‘it’s my bank, I own it – just knock on the door.’ We knocked on the door and people opened it armed with Kalashnikovs and we got paid.
JOHNNY: So they had Kalashnikovs ,in a bank, in London?
JH: Yeah, of course. Inside the bank, you know.
JOHNNY: Okay, proper questions now. When did you first discover that you had a talent for art?
JH: Well in school I was always top of the class, but typically as a teenager, I didn’t want to know about paintings, my interests were in other things. I did my national service, got engaged, got married had children, worked in the meat-market and at the age of 32 I started to lay on the floor in the sitting room and work on the carpet, just drawing you know, and that’s when it all first started when I was 32.
JOHNNY: How did you sell your first paintings and who were they to?
JH: It was to a cafe in Soho. I was walking around with a couple of paintings and I went into a cafe called La Macabre – I guess it’s not there now. But it had coffins for tables, all painted black and they sold frothy coffee and all that. A chap there saw them and bought them ; I think he bought them for £5 each.
JOHNNY: What were the paintings of?
JH: They were abstract paintings. They were like lit windows in the dark, different coloured curtains – cracked paving stones, moss and all of that sort of thing.
JOHNNY: And after you sold them?
JH: I just carried on painting, and my first exhibition was in Islington, that went okay, got good reviews. Then I met Patrick Casement, who is Roger Casements’ (British traitor during Irish 1916 campaign) grandson. He organised an exhibition for me at St Catherine’s College, Oxford and then subsequent exhibitions at Balliol and Bear Lane Gallery, Oxford. Then a young French guy called Pierre Jaquemon had seen my work at the Rail Gallery I think, and invited me to go back to Leon with him for an exhibition. I had a few exhibitions in Leon and Paris, places like that.
JOHNNY: How much time did you have to create new paintings between exhibitions?
JH: I would just work and work until I had enough to show for a new showing. For example, I did a series about Jack the Ripper; when I had about 20 ready a gallery lawyer in Leon asked me to show these 20 together, so I said okay we’ll show those. Just like that really.
JOHNNY: Did you have an agent during this time, or were you doing all of this on spec?
JH: I was with the Nicholas Treadwell gallery. He now lives in Austria, in Linz. He now has a gallery there.
JOHNNY: Did they (he) look after you well in those early years?
JH: Oh yes, we’ve been very good friends. He was down St Georges Walk in Croydon, and this was at a time when he was selling abstract work and I was near the end of my abstract work and just coming onto figurative. He was pleased to see the figurative work, because he says, even today that it changed his life when he saw what I could do with figurative work. We were very good friends all the time.
Now when I was working down the meat-market on the railway the firm burnt down, Bishopsgate burned down and I was made redundant, but I had to go to the inquest in Kings Cross, because I had taken some flammable stuff somewhere and when I was coming away from the inquest I happened to see a sign that said Evening Classes: Further Education for Working Men. And I thought, well I’m a working man, I could do with some further education! I went in there, and this chap said what can you so I told him I could bring him some photos of my paintings. And I did, I brought him some 35mm slides, and he said ‘you know what, a friend of mine is the Principle of London College of Printing, would you like to go there?’ So I did, and he gave me a course straight away. Graphic design, photography, topography, that sort of thing and I stayed there for nine months and I put some stuff in for a bursary – and after nine months Ogilvy and Mather saw it and offered me a job in advertising. So I was Art Director for about three years, but at the same time I was getting asked to do commission work. Nothing that I had thought of – here’s a book, will you illustrate – here’s a magazine article, will you do it – here’s a record sleeve, will you do a painting. It got so much that I couldn’t do my time at London College of Printing and I stopped painting to do illustrating for a long time, longer than I should have done. Now, I just paint when I want to paint. I have only ever accepted six private commissions. You know – people are waiting, art departments are waiting, printers are waiting, salesmen are waiting. But I’ve not done any commission work for eight, ten years. Something like that.
JOHNNY: Are you allowed to say who has commissioned work from you?
JH: I’ll tell you who’s bought paintings from me. John Arlott (cricket commentator), Roman Polanski – he bought two. He bought a portrait as well, I did a portrait of him.
JOHNNY: Did George Melly ever buy anything from you? It’s well known that he was a collector of surrealist art.
JH: No, no. I used to go and see him in The French. Used to say, ‘Hello George,’ and he’d say ‘Hello John,’ and that was it. I used to say to my agent at the time, Andrew Archer, ‘tell George about my paintings,’ and he’d say ‘No, this is social time!’ and he was right – I agreed with him absolutely. So George never got to see my work. I guess he saw The Female Eunuch. I saw him just before he died, just about six months before he died. He was in Norwich with his Feetwarmers. He’s sadly missed.
JOHNNY: How did you get into the painting for paperbacks business?
JH: Well, I was friends with a wonderful photographer and he had a friend who was the Art Director for Panther Books. He introduced me, and he said could you do anything for us. It may have been Nabakov’s Despair. Then two or three commissions in he asked me if I would do The Female Eunuch so I went and sat with Germaine Greer, Dave my friend and also Sonny who subsequently ended up buying the Eunuch painting and we all talked about the possibility of doing the cover. The first one they turned down. It was a faceless portrait of Germaine Greer with breasts in configuration with an erect penis and two balls. Of course they turned it down! But I did sell it to the woman who went and formed Virago Books (Carmen Callil). Then I came up with this other one which is now in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
JOHNNY: At the time did you think that the painting for The Female Eunuch would become so famous and instantly recognisable?
JH: Not at all, not at all. Germaine Greer loved it.
JOHNNY: What disciplines are involved when doing paintings for paperbacks? Do you work smaller?
JH: Yeah, I work about 20’ by 30’, something like that. In some case it just depends on the job. I did a lot of work for Nova magazine at that time, book publishers all over. Different jobs, different sizes.
JOHNNY: Were you a fan of horror and were you influenced to do horror inspired paintings before you came to do works like the Fontana Horror Stories artwork?
JH: Not really, no. Although I was intrigued by Jack the Ripper of course, because I lived in the area. Growing up with all those myths all the old people told you. I absolutely can’t remember what my first horror painting was. Just after The Female Eunuch I did Jaws and gradually all of the commissions went towards the horror stuff. I was very comfortable working within that genre, I could do ten to the dozen, I really could. But in regards to the Fontana Horrors you’ve got to paint them really well, really tightly because the value is in the initial thought and then the finish. It’s just a straightforward image on a black background normally.