A MAJOR retrospective of the work of the renowned artist, Peter Howson, opens tomorrow - May 27 - at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh.

When the Apple Ripens: Peter Howson at 65 brings together more than 100 works tracing Howson’s ground-breaking career from his student days to the present.

Speaking in January, David Patterson, City Art Centre Curatorial and Conservation Manager, said: "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see works assembled from public and private collections.

Peter Howson: Major retrospective of renowned painter to open in May

"This retrospective will illustrate Peter's consummate skill in a range of media and explore his religious work as well as his graphic responses to recent global events including the Covid pandemic and war in Ukraine."

Paterson has been planning the exhibition since 2019, working closely with Howson and his London gallery.

Howson was already a hugely successful artist when, some thirty years ago, he found himself at something of a crossroads in his career. What rejuvenated him was an invitation from the Imperial War Museum Department of Art to journey to Bosnia as a British Official War Artist to record the conflict in former Yugoslavia.

'In Bosnia I know I will be tested to the utmost", he told the Glasgow Herald in April 1993. "It is terrifying, but it is something I feel must do".

He later elaborated on this, in an interview with the journalist Alan Jackson for his 1997 book, A Different Man: Peter Howson's Art, from Bosnia and Beyond.

"I needed to start over again, clear out of my life all the things I no longer needed", Howson said.

New Edinburgh retrospective celebrates artist Peter Howson OBE

"This was my opportunity for rebirth, and I was meant to take it. I believe in fate .... And I believe 100 per cent that I was meant to go to Bosnia ... even though I knew it would be my most traumatic experience ever, and that it would forever change my life and work. I was actually incredibly excited about that aspect of it all. It was a decision I was making for my soul".

HeraldScotland: Peter Howson OBE poses for a photograph with his new artwork, The Massacre of Srebrenica, unveiled at St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art, in 2019Peter Howson OBE poses for a photograph with his new artwork, The Massacre of Srebrenica, unveiled at St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art, in 2019 (Image: Jamie Simpson, Newsquest Glasgow)

Howson's itinerary included four days' acclimatisation at army barracks in the coastal town of Split then, via overnight stops at two British army bases, a transfer to Vitez, central Bosnia, near where the fighting was raging.

The horrors and the sights that Howson confronted on that first visit have been chronicled by Jackson and others. The artist came home after three weeks instead of four, having contracted dysentery.

A flavour of that time emerges from an interview carried out in July 1993 by the Glasgow Herald's art critic, Clare Henry.

Wrote Henry: "His small daughter Lucie was tired of the war. She had heard the stories too often: the 24-hour non-stop rocket, mortars, snipers, sharpshooters, and tracer bullets; the 20 miles to Akus through a forest where Moslem bandits appear from nowhere, regarded as the most dangerous road in the world; the Fish Head
Gang (warlords who operate from a trout farm); the old women running alongside the tanks for protection.

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"We went into another room while Howson recounted his more terrible memories which I leave you to imagine. 'The thing that affect me most was not the firing nor the rockets but the refugees wandering aimlessly around burned out homes, dazed and desperate but with nowhere to go.

"'They run to the wall of the British camp and lie in the grass to avoid being picked off by snipers. A British major has the job of reading out a prepared statement which says: 'I strongly advise you to return to your homes,' but they have no homes. Some cry and throw stones at him out of frustration. But he can't let them in. He's powerless. It's dreadful to see'."

Try as he might, Howson was unable to turn his Bosnian experiences into art. Eventually he realised that what he needed to do was to return.

HeraldScotland: Peter Howson with Glasgow's Lord Provost Pat Lally, whose portrait he paintedPeter Howson with Glasgow's Lord Provost Pat Lally, whose portrait he painted (Image: Chris James, Herald and Times)

Handsome tribute for Lally by Howson

"And once I had that realisation", he told Jackson, "I couldn't get it out of my head. I needed to return for the sake of my work".

Together with his friend, the sculptor Iain McColl, Howson flew back out in November. Unlike his first visit, during which he had been accompanied by a BBC television crew, and was essentially a civilian, he insisted that he be allowed to wear army uniform. He and McColl were given the rank of honorary major.

Wary buyers circle the Bosnian canvas

They were flown out to Split in Croatia and then drove to Vitez in
central Bosnia, where the Coldstream Guards were then on a six-month tour of duty as the third British battalion to serve with the United Nations Protection Force.

Roughly halfway to Vitez, Howson, McColl and their Land Rover-borne party came to a hostile place named Prozor, which Howson had seen on his first visit.

As Jackson relates, old women spat at their vehicle, and youths blowpiped using hypodermics in their direction.

HeraldScotland: Howson, pictured in April 2002 in front of a pastel sketch of Madonna Howson, pictured in April 2002 in front of a pastel sketch of Madonna (Image: Colin Mearns)

"The fighting was still going on there", Howson remembered. "It was like a pitched battle as we passed through. There were dead bodies scattered across the streets, and we had to just swerve around them. The atmosphere was terrifying, and you knew instinctively that it was no place to stop".

There was more of this, much more.

HeraldScotland: The Road to Zenica, by Peter HowsonThe Road to Zenica, by Peter Howson (Image: PR)

In time, Howson's time as Official War Artist led to a major exhibition, Peter Howson: Bosnia, at the Imperial War Museum in London, which opened in September 1994. It contains some of his most wrenchingly powerful work, including 'Croatian and Muslim', which depicts two men in fatigues raping a civilian woman. 

Writing in the Herald that December, Clare Henry observed that Howson's "traumatic visits to Bosnia ... resulted in a powerful exhibition of work". Many other critics - to say nothing of members of the public - were similarly moved.

The things he witnessed in his two trips to Bosnia had a profound impact on him.

"There are not many people around in Scotland today that have witnessed a war and I was shocked by what I saw when I went there," he told BBC Scotland in 2019, as he unveiled a massive new painting, The Massacre of Srebrenica. 

"The army took me around and I saw dead bodies, cleansed houses, two coaches that had been blown up with the bodies still left inside."

In an interview in February this year Howson told a journalist: "I saw a lot of stuff - not nearly as much as some of the soldiers but it was enough for me. I'm not a trained soldier. I was just there as a rather delicate individual who's gone over to a war zone and is totally unprepared for it".

When the Apple Ripens: Peter Howson at 65; City Art Centre, Edinburgh, May 27- October 1.