Curator’s Choice – Mr Great Heart, Peter Howson, 1997

Posted: 13th November 2020

Humber Museums Partnership - Curator’s Choice – Mr Great Heart, Peter Howson, 1997

I think this compelling painting is one of the absolute highlights of the Ferens collection of modern and contemporary art. With its great psychological force, deep sensitivity and dark humour, it comes as no surprise to learn that Mr Great Heart is close to the hearts of many regular visitors to Ferens.

Traditionally, paintings of people on this grand scale are portraits of equally grand subjects, be they lords and ladies of the aristocracy, celebrities and royals, politicians or military and so on. But I sense that Peter Howson’s Mr Great Heart doesn’t tick any of the above.

There are many things that grab me when I catch a glimpse of this vast figure, this bare-torsoed, bare-knuckle boxer, in the gallery. Even though it’s a portrayal of just one single figure, there’s a real sense of drama: the mighty human form confined in the narrow picture space; the animal strength, the weary watchfulness, trained choreography and attuned instincts. There is a palpable air of suspense. We witness both strength and vulnerability. We’re given hints of interiority, thought processes and emotions that are part of the embodied experience of one person engaged in a very specific form of human encounter at a very precise moment in the action. We don’t see the opponent, though, do we? Is there an opponent? Whom or what is Mr Great Heart himself looking at? And why isn’t that in the picture?

The title ‘Mr Great Heart’ to me is sheer brilliance and part of my delight in the painting. I don’t know if it relates to a real-life person – the stage name of a fighter perhaps, or someone’s nick name? Or if it alludes to some imagined and forgotten superhero. If there is a background story, it’s up to us to invent it. Artists use titles in multiple ways and for all sorts of aesthetic and practical reasons – as a way into the artwork, a luring tactic enticing us to look again, to spend more time, or as a descriptive label, or as a puzzle or trick. To me, ‘Mr Great Heart’ is pure poetry. The painting just wouldn’t be the same with a different title.

I first encountered this artwork not on the gallery wall but in the stores. And I really wasn’t prepared for the impact it would have. The sheer scale alone – almost 2.5 meters tall – propelled me to edge backwards, to start over, to get things into perspective, and so take in the bigger picture. Like other people, I imagine, up to the time I first saw the painting in the flesh, I was only familiar with the much smaller scale reproduction on the sleeve of The Beautiful South’s album Quench, released in 1998, the year after Mr Great Heart was painted.

Written by assistant curator, Leonie O’Dwyer.

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