Peter Howson was born in London in 1958 and moved to his adopted Scotland in 1962, where he studied at Glasgow School of Art (1975–7 and 1979–81). Alongside contemporaries such as Adrian Wiszniewski, Ken Currie and Stephen Campbell who were known collectively as the Glasgow Boys, Howson was one of the central figures in the school of Scottish figurative painting that rose to prominence in the 1980s.
Howson made his name with large format paintings showing massive, predominantly male figures portrayed in a bold, muscular style that used line and colour to powerful, expressive effect. The almost grotesque form of his overly-developed bodies was to become the focus of much of Howson’s most lauded work. Howson’s stated abhorrence of violent culture is reflected and often replicated in much of his work and there seems to be an intrinsic link between the potent, and sometimes literal, violence of his paintings and their depiction of muscle-bound monsters. His portrayals of Glasgow's down-and-outs and working class macho culture amidst the industrialised wasteland of Clydeside in the west of Scotland in the 1970s and 1980s gained him a vast amount of public and media attention. In The Scottish Trilogy (1987), for example, he combines national symbols such as Robert Burns, stags and a bottle of whisky with images of squalor and depravity to demonstrate the gulf between perceptions of a mythical Scotland and the harsh contemporary reality. This bleak view was developed in several subsequent series, such as Blind Leading the Blind I–X (1991), which was inspired by the painting of the same name by Bruegel.
In 1993 Howson was appointed the Official British War Artist for Bosnia, and his visits to the region provided him with a highly charged subject matter that gave new ethical direction and motivation to his work. Among the paintings derived from this experience was Croatian and Muslim (1994), depicting two men raping a woman while pushing her head into a lavatory. This and other images of sexual violence and brutality opened up a lively debate as to what the role of the war artist should be. After being exhibited in London, the Bosnian collection was shown at the Paris Art Fair in 1997 to great acclaim.
In 1995, two years after his last Bosnia excursion, Howson was asked by John Cox, the director of Scottish Opera to create the set designs for Cox’s own production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which resulted in a uniquely dark production. In the same year, Howson was introduced to a television scriptwriter, Dean Lemmon, who was losing his battle with a particularly virulent form of AIDS-related cancer and asked Howson to paint a full size nude portrait to illustrate his final days. The stunning result has lead to Howson painting a number of portraits since, including one of former Celtic footballer Henrik Larsson and two nude studies of Madonna.
Following the success of his commission with Scottish Opera, Howson painted a series of seven canvasses based on Stravinsky’s opera, The Rake’s Progress. The paintings follow the life of the eponymous Tom Rake as he explores the seedier side of life, ending in his bankruptcy and eventual insanity. The first four pieces were a radical departure in style and introduced a more vivid palette to his work. The resulting show, held at Flowers East in London, opened in January 1996 to rave reviews, and lead to John McEnroe selecting a number of works to be exhibited at his own gallery in New York.
In 1998 he made a portfolio of 50 etchings, Undergound, that demonstrated his continuing interest in allegorical portraiture and reflected his life in the South of England following his move to London in 1994. He was awarded the Henry Moore Foundation Prize in 1988, the Lord Provost's Medal of Glasgow in 1995 and was made Doctor of Letters, Honoras Causa, by the University of Strathclyde in 1996.
Howson is represented in the following collections: National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh; Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow, Scotland; Tate Gallery, London, amongst others.