Ingleby | James Hugonin

October 5 2020
  • Today, we are celebrating the 70th birthday of James Hugonin, a unique figure in the history of abstract art in Britain and without doubt one of the most singular, and single-minded, painters of our time.


    James has a deeply personal way of making pictures in which small marks of wax-thinned oil paint are applied across an underlying grid, with each painting taking, on average, a year to complete. It is a way of working that began 40 years ago and continues to this day. For almost all this time he has lived and worked in his native Northumbria, in a home shared with the artist Sarah Bray, who he met as a fellow student at West Surrey School of Art and Design in 1973. They live on the edge of the Cheviot Hills, on the English side of the border country with Scotland, in a house on a hill looking towards Lindisfarne and the light of the North Sea. Over the years his deeply subtle, time-based, paintings have evolved from works of spectral translucency, in which the light of the Northumbrian landscape is channelled into colours so thin that they almost completely disappear, to the tonally weighty marks of solid colour that he uses today. It seems wrong to single out individual works in a career that has been built painting by painting, each work having its own special place in a process of gradual evolution, but nonetheless, here are a few images that tell something of the story of his extraordinarily distinctive career over the last four decades.


    To begin, details taken from four paintings made between 1982 and 1996. Firstly, Untitled XI from 1982, and Untitled XX from 1988, two of several paintings belonging to James’s long-time friend and supporter the Dutch collector Rolf Van Hulten, and then Untitled (I), and Untitled (VII) now in the collections of the Arts Council of Great Britain, and Tate London, respectively.

  • Untitled (1) marked the first of a series of large paintings, begun in 1988, which would continue in an identical format for the next 22 years. As James’s friend the writer Chris Yetton wrote in a recent book celebrating the Van Hulten collection: “Hugonin worked on this new series for twenty two years of uninterrupted concentration exploring his understanding of the nature of colour and its ability to dynamically animate the surface, beginning each new painting as soon as he finished the last and working every day. Hugonin chose his colours, their tone, tint and intensity, intuitively. What he learnt in one painting and the problems it threw up immediately suggested new ideas for the next”.


    Along the way individual paintings presented new developments, in Untitled (XII) for example, a painting made between 2002 and 2003, he started to make notes in a book, rather than keeping the system for each painting in his head over its many months of making, writing what has come to be seen as a ‘score’ - less a precise set of rules than a form of notation akin to those of his musical heroes Morton Feldman or Arvo Pårt. As the late Michael Harrison, another close friend of the artist and former Director of Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, observed, the connection to music didn’t stop there: "the paintings carry with them that pace, that slowness, that sense of time. They ask us to slow down, and to look, and to settle as we would to listen to a piece of music, allowing time to take effect - to acknowledge that, for all their quietness and stillness, our relationship to them is one of continual change".

  • Another substantial shift occurred between Untitled (XIV), in the collection of the National Museum of Wales and Untitled (XV) in the Van Hulten collection in which the rhythm of the painting, previously formed by the falling pattern of colours applied as an inverted ‘s’ shape, began to pulse from both sides.

  • 2010 | Installation views of James Hugonin at Ingleby, Calton Road
  • The Untitled series culminated in an exhibition to mark James’ 60th birthday at our gallery in Edinburgh, exactly ten years ago, in October 2010. It was followed by a new series of nine even larger works, the Binary Rhythm Paintings, made across the next six years (and completed just in time for our exhibition celebrating James’s 65th birthday) a quickening of the pace enabled by the notebooks that were now being written for each work, and which opened the door to the greater involvement of studio assistants. Previously their role had been limited to applying the seventeen layers of white gesso that begin each painting, and helping to draw the underlying grid, but now they could work alongside James on the painting itself, following his instructions.


    Among the younger artists from the North East of England who have found themselves working in the Hugonin studio in recent years are a number who have since become an important presence in James’s life. Most notably Nick Kennedy, Rachael Clewlow and Alex Charrington whose friendship and support has allowed James to extend his reach even further, often working on more than one painting at a time and so allowing a comparative process as fine shifts occur from painting to painting. In Binary Rhythm (VI) the grid was painted in pale grey, in place of the previous scored silverpoint, and in the paintings that followed the grid itself became more active, taking on a colour of either pink or green – an apparently small shift perhaps, but one with huge implications for the tonality and final character of the painting.

  • In the most recent, and on-going, series of Fluctuation in Elliptical Form paintings, of which four have been completed, and a further four are planned, the size has increased further so that the experience of the work is now slightly larger than our ability to take it in – creating an expanse of shimmering marks over which the eye moves, and into which the brain sinks. That passage between eye and brain is where these extraordinary paintings operate like no other, offering a slight sense of hypnosis and an inbuilt gentleness of pace that somehow determines the speed at which we are able to see them.

  • The new series further explores James’s interest in the balance between intention and chance, setting clear parameters for each work, such as the restriction of using the same 89 colours, and setting the system that is in place for each painting against the possibility of a mark made at random, its relative height within the overall structure sometimes determined by the throw of a dice. These are systems-based paintings that accept, indeed celebrate, the human fallibility that is at their heart. The system is essential, but it is never in complete control so that the closer you look the more human, and indeed hand-made, they become.

  • We look forward to making an exhibition of the Fluctuations in Elliptical Form paintings before too long, but meanwhile in celebration of James’s 70th birthday, the most recently completed painting is viewable by appointment as part of our Frieze week residency at Cromwell Place in South Kensington.


    To make an appointment please email


    Happy Birthday James!