I popped into the Walker this afternoon to say hello to Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy – on loan from the Tate for a short time while the Walker lends Peter Getting out of Nick’s Pool to the new Nottingham Contemporary Art Gallery for their inaugural Early Hockney exhibition. It’s always been a favourite in our house – one of those old Athena block-mounted reproductions has hung on our upstairs landing for over 25 years.
The Walker provides this note on the painting:
This painting was short-listed for the title of ‘Greatest Painting in Britain’ in a 2005 poll launched by the BBC’s Today programme.
Hockney began this portrait of fashion designer Ossie Clark and fabric designer Celia Birtwell shortly after their wedding, at which Hockney was best man. The couple are shown in their London flat. Hockney made drawings and took photographs there, but they also modelled in his studio owing to the painting’s size. The cat on Clark’s lap is actually thought to be ‘Blanche’, but Hockney felt ‘Percy’, the name of the couple’s other cat, sounded better.
Hockney struggled with the painting for nearly a year, re-working Clark’s head as many as 12 times. He aimed to capture the couple’s complex and unconventional relationship, along with its tensions. Traditional conventions of wedding portraiture are reversed,with the man seated while the woman stands. The couple’s marriage didn’t last. Hockney once commented that,“Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy probably caused it”.
This is one of a series of large double portraits that Hockney began in the late 1960s. Although some areas appear flattened or simplified, Hockney felt it was one of his paintings that came closest to Naturalism.
It’s a remarkable portrait – and an excellent account by Jan Marshall on her blog provides some telling and tragic background:
There is something about this painting which grabs me – a mixture of the composition, the subject matter, the tension in it – and not least, because of the tragic ending to the story behind the painting. This is a painting I would happily hang on my own wall – it has stood the test of time […]
Of course it is a portait of Celia Birtwell and Ossie Clark – the husband and wife team, fashion designers, who met at art school in Lancashire and later married in 1969, when Celia was pregnant with their first son (Albert). Another son followed 3 years later (George). The painting was a wedding gift from David Hockney (how lucky were they?) The picture hints at their hedonisitc lifestyle and there appears to be a covert tension between them, shown particularly in the face of Ossie. You won’t be surprised to know their marriage was brief and Celia eventually dumped Ossie; she was sick of his drug taking and homosexual affair with the artist Adran George. She finally divorced him in 1974.
Ossie’s life seemed to spiral downwards from then on. He fell in love with Nick Balabon, who eventually left him and then died of Aids. Ossie continued taking drugs and fell into bankruptcy in the 1980’s. After losing everything, he lodged briefly with friends until the DHSS re-housed him in a tiny flat. In 1995 he invited a 27 year old Italian, Diego Cogolata, to live with him as his lover. This relationship was doomed and Ossie was eventually murdered by Diego in (who stabbed him 37 times and then bashed his head in – in 1996). Diego admitted his crime and was sentenced to a mere 6 years in prison – because it was considered he had “diminished responsibility.” Celia’s story appears to have a happier ending; in 2005 she started designing for Topshop and her designs are successful […]
It is hard to look at this brooding portrait in the same way – once you realise the future of Ossie. But I still love that moment captured in time – where the door is still open to the future – and Ossie has the option to make whatever choice he wants to make. And the wrong cat – that appeals to me too – even the great can make a mistake, albeit a minor one.