The Third Step by Peter Howson

Peter Howson

The Third Step, 2001, Oil on canvas, 189 x 259 cm, Flowers Gallery, AFG 33212, © Peter Howson, courtesy of Flowers Gallery

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Into the Zone of Brightness

Commentary by

In The Third Step, Peter Howson depicts a naked man dragging himself along the ground in a church graveyard. In the context of this virtual exhibition, Howson’s crawling figure can evoke Nebuchadnezzar in his distress because—to echo King Lear’s remark about the naked Edgar—the artist has here shown us a ‘poor, bare, forked animal’ (King Lear 3.4.105–7). The man has been brought low having lost the accoutrements of civilization, and is looking up from his position among the gravestones towards the illuminated crucifix on the church tower.

Conversations with Howson have revealed that the artist identifies with this figure because, after being strung out on drugs and alcohol, he himself ‘finally recognized he had reached rock bottom and entered the addiction treatment centre at Castle Craig Hospital in the Scottish Borders’ (Kohan 2012: 76). While he was ‘following the twelve-step recovery program of Alcoholics Anonymous he sensed the presence of Christ in his room one night, telling him he was loved and would be cured’. He had the same experience every night for the next three months. ‘Redemption had come to him in his private hell’ (Kohan 2012: 76). Howson’s minister, the Reverend Peter White, confirms that The Third Step ‘reflects [the artist’s] own recovery from his difficulties, made possible by his discovery of the love of Jesus’ (Fraser 2002).

John A. Kohan explains that The Third Step is a ‘reference to the stage in AA when addicts make a decision “to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God”’. Dark clouds ‘theatrically open to illuminate the crucifix on a nearby church tower’. ‘The burial ground becomes holy ground’ and the poor, bare, forked animal ‘drags himself into the zone of brightness like a contemporary Lazarus come forth from a pitted, concrete sepulchre’ (Kohan 2012: 76).  

Howson, this crawling figure, and Nebuchadnezzar all come to a moment of restorative realization about themselves and about God. In this painting Howson captures visually the internal moment when realization appears and, to quote William Blake, ‘the doors of perception’ become ‘cleansed’ (Blake 1979: 188).   



Blake, William. 1979. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell in The Complete Poems (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books)

Heller, Robert. 2003. Peter Howson (London: Momentum Books)

Fraser, Steven. 2002. 'Howson sees the Light in the Kirk 3 March 2002', The Scotsman.

Kohan, John A. 2012. ‘Peter Howson and the Harrowing of Hell’, Image Journal, 76.

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