Hockney: pictures, family, friends and lovers

Hockney: pictures, family, friends and lovers

‘I lived in Bohemia, and Bohemia is a tolerant place.’

My daughter and I share a love for David Hockney, so on Tuesday evening we joined those attending cinemas across the country for first screening of the feature-length documentary about the artist, to be followed by a Q&A with Hockney live from his Los Angeles home.

It’s a superb film, directed by Randall Wright, who also made the excellent Lucian Freud: Painted Life and David Hockney: Secret Knowledge for the BBC. Intimate and affectionate, Hockney‘s emotional punch comes from the artist having, for the first time, given access to his personal video and photo library. Like today’s selfie and Instagram devotees, but decades earlier, Hockney assiduously documented his own life on film, starting with the house he grew up in in Bradford, to his new life as a blond in the Mediterranean sunlight of southern California, where he found the space and colour he transmuted into iconic paintings. Continue reading “Hockney: pictures, family, friends and lovers”


The meaning of trees: the way we see the world

The meaning of trees: the way we see the world

Is the rowan tree still there in the garden of the house where I grew up? The thought occurred to me as I listened to the second of five talks by Fiona Stafford on The Meaning of Trees, broadcast last week in BBC Radio 3’s Essay strand (and available as a podcast download). Stafford had begun by explaining the Rowan’s popularity as a tree for suburban gardens – it’s easy to grow, is good on all kinds of soil, is low maintenance, and doesn’t grow too large.


For gardeners the tree has several benefits.  It’s a tree for all seasons – a kaleidoscope of changing colours  throughout the year, from creamy spring blossom and pistachio summer green to autumn’s bright scarlet berries.  It’s popular with bird-lovers because it’s a favourite of blackbirds and thrushes.  The result is that rowans found in suburban streets and gardens all over Britain.

Yet this is a tree that first flourished in wild upland areas.  And, as Fiona Stafford suggested, it’s long experienced something of an identity crisis, bearing a confusion of names at various times.  ‘Rowan’ reflects the Viking influence in Scotland, since the word derives from the Old Norse reynir,meaning red. The tree’s popular name Mountain Ash is a double misnomer: although it had its origins in highland areas, the tree is now just as common in the south.  Moreover, it is not related to the Ash (the confusion arose because of the similarity between the pinnate leaves of the two species). Then there’s the Old English name of cwic-beám, which survives in the name quickbeam (where ‘quick’ = life). Fiona Stafford considered various explanations as to why, from Anglo-Saxon times, the tree should have acquired its association with life. Perhaps it derived from its use as charm for infertile land, or from the therapeutic value of the berries (they make an excellent gargle for sore throats, apparently), or maybe it was something to do with the quivering leaves.

So the rowan comes in many guises: white ash, mountain ash, quickbeam, whispering tree, witchwood. As Fiona Stafford explained, this shifting identity suits a tree that is at once safe and suburban and a tree sacred to antiquity, renowned for its protective powers. She spoke of how the rowan figures prominently in Irish, Scottish and Scandinavian traditions, its berries considered the food of the gods. It features in old Irish poems, and has many associations with magic and witches. Its old Celtic name is ‘fid na ndruad‘ which means wizard’s tree. It also crops up in poems by Seamus Heaney, such as ‘Song’:

A rowan like a lipsticked girl.
Between the by-road and the main road
Alder trees at a wet and dripping distance
Stand off among the rushes.

There are the mud-flowers of dialect
And the immortelles of perfect pitch
And that moment when the bird sings very close
To the music of what happens.

This is the second series on The Meaning of Trees presented by Fiona Stafford, Professor of Literature at Somerville College Oxford. Like the first, this one explored the symbolism, economic importance,  and cultural significance of five trees common in the UK. While the first series considered the yew, ash, oak, willow and sycamore, in the second Stafford discussed the rowan, pine, poplar, hawthorn and apple.

Klimt -pine-forest

Gustav Klimt, Pine Forest, 1901

Before the discussing rowan, now flourishing in suburban gardens, Fiona Stafford had begun her series with another domesticated species – one that has found a place in almost every room of the house – and in providing key ingredients of many household products. Stafford was talking about the pine.  She began:

The year is 1975.  The summer is scorching, and people are starting to strip.

She’s talking about the new wave in furniture:

In the kitchen we have pine tables, dressers, cupboards; in the bedroom pine headboards, wardrobes and drawers; in the bathroom there’s more pine for the cabinets, towel rails, shelves and brush-holders.

Everyone, Stafford exclaimed, is going pine mad.  How true!  This was the era of Habitat and local artisans retailing reclaimed and freshly-stripped pine (or, with effort, you could do it yourself).  We, too – a young couple setting up home in our first flat – were part of this pine revival that was, in Stafford’s words, ‘a reaction against the polythene, plastic and polyester space age’.  Instead of lino and Formica that mimicked wood, we wanted the real thing.

A native of Scotland, economically the pine is the world’s most important tree.  There are not only the obvious uses in the furniture, building and paper industries, but also its medicinal properties in treating bronchitis and pneumonia for millennia and its resin, used to manufacture glues, gums, waxes, solvents and fragrances.  It’s the ultimate versatile tree, providing the base oil for emulsion paint, turpentine for cleaning brushes, pitch for waterproofing ships’ timbers – and licorice allsorts.

Drowned pine forest

The drowned pine and oak forest of Borth

The pine has been a British native tree for over 4000 years, with dark pine forests entering legends and fairytales.  Fiona Stafford told how, after the ferocious February storms, a prehistoric  drowned forest of pine and oak from between 4,500 and 6,000 years ago was revealed when thousands of tons of sand were stripped from beaches in Cardigan Bay.  At Borth the remains were exposed of a forest that once stretched for miles before climate change and rising sea levels buried it under layers of peat, sand and saltwater. The trees echo the local legend of a lost kingdom, Cantre’r Gwaelod, drowned beneath the waves.

Pines on the Mediterranean

Wind-tossed pines on the Mediterranean coast at Giens, near Hyeres

Stafford spoke of the pine’s time-old ‘tendency to help and to heal’, now revealed in a new sense as scientists discover that pine scents create a cooling, aerosol effect as they rise. So a pine forest can actually create cloud cover – a natural mirror that reflects sunlight back into the stratosphere and away from the overheated earth.  But there was one use of pine not mentioned by Fiona Stafford – one to which I am addicted.  The seeds of the tree – called pine nuts – when harvested make a wonderful addition to many dishes, as well as being an essential ingredient of pesto sauce.  Stafford did, however, mention the heady scent of pine trees which I particularly associate with the Mediterranean.

Mont Sainte-Victoire by Paul Cezanne, 1887

 Paul Cezanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire, 1887

Cezanne, The Great Pine, c.1896

Paul Cezanne, The Great Pine, c.1896

Something else overlooked by Stafford, but which I would have to mention in any discussion of pines, are Paul Cezanne’s paintings of pine trees which frame Mont Saint Victoire in his many paintings of that mountain.  Most powerful of all – and one of my absolute favourite paintings – is his portrait of The Great Pine.


A hawthorn in the Yorkshire Dales

“There is a Thorn—it looks so old,
In truth, you’d find it hard to say
How it could ever have been young,
It looks so old and grey.
Not higher than a two years’ child
It stands erect, this aged Thorn;
No leaves it has, no prickly points;
It is a mass of knotted joints,
A wretched thing forlorn.

This is the opening stanza of Wordsworth’s poem ‘The Thorn’, cited by Fiona Stafford as an example of the fearsome reputation of the hawthorn, regarded throughout history as so unlucky that its blossom should never be brought into the house or displayed. Indeed, I remember when I was a child, my mother, who hailed from rural Derbyshire, would be horrified if we came back from a walk with hawthorn in amongst a bunch of wild flowers). This fear probably derived from the erroneous belief that Christ’s crown of thorns was of hawthorn. From the belief flowed the idea that to bring any part of the tree into a house – but most importantly the flowers – would result in someone in the house dying. Attacking or cutting down a hawthorn tree was a bad idea for the same reason. As Stafford remarked in her talk, ‘Some terrifying force seems to lurk within this formidable tree – or rather in the minds of those who feel so threatened by its deeply feminine beauty’.

In spring, the hawthorn bursts into beautiful ‘May’ blossom. Every year, in Stafford’s words, ‘almost overnight the hawthorn turns white; huge heaps of flowers seemed to be dropped along the branches as if by some careless cook. For David Hockney, this is ‘action week’.  At his landmark exhibition in London a couple of years ago, a whole room was filled with ‘these huge, disturbing, custard-coated forms’ – a massive celebration of the magical, shape-changing hawthorn’.

Hockney, May Blossom on the Roman Road, 2009

Hockney, ‘May Blossom on the Roman Road’, 2009

Despite the hawthorn’s association with bad luck, the tree’s main association is with May, its blossom crowning May queens and adorning maypoles.  Its alternative name of May or May blossom reflects the fact that the flowering of the hawthorn is a sign that winter is over and spring is underway (although, given the British climate, May blossom might appear in April or as late as June).  Interestingly, the old saying ‘Ne’er cast a clout ’til May be out’ (a warning not to be precipitous in shedding any clouts or clothes) refers, not to the month of May, but to the understanding that summer has not arrived until the May blossom is out.

May blossom on Wenlock Edge, May 2007

May blossom on Wenlock Edge, May 2007

Coincidentally, Paul Evans, one of the finest observers of the natural world writing at present, has this week devoted his Country Diary in the Guardian to the hawthorn.  I think the piece merits being reproduced in its entirety:

The last May blooms like a bride on Windmill Hill. White in the evening light as the sky begins to clear from a cool, drizzly day, she stands as a lightning rod, still dazzling with energy from the recent storm. From lightning, according to myth, she originated. Her branches are filled with corymbs of five-petalled flowers, each with a ring of red, match-head stamens. Her earthily erotic musk draws flies for pollination and sends them into a trance. A sacred tree to European peoples, her wood was used in wedding torches in Greece, as protection against hauntings and evil spirits in Germany, and in magical healing for warts, toothache, rheumatoid arthritis and childbirth.

Crowns of mayflower were found on the dead of Palaeolithic cave-dwellers long before they were used as bridal wreaths in Greek and Roman weddings dedicated to Maia and the Virgin Mary. In Celtic culture, lone bushes like this one were places of fairy power and protected for fear of reprisals. There is something in this. I have long admired this particular tree: impenetrable and cloud-shaped, it flowers late and produces a big crop of scarlet haws. It is frequently full of birdsong and the hum of insects, and has a distinctive presence up on top of the hill as a kind of beacon. It would feel like sacrilege to interfere with it and I can well believe its beauty could turn to malevolence. Most May trees or hawthorns in the landscape have gone smudgy, their petals fading and dropping in the rain.

Paths and lanes all around are sprinkled with the white confetti of the great wedding of May, and now the month and its tree are nearly over. The next wave of rose relative flowers – bramble and dog rose – is about to break out of hedges and scrub. Until then, this tree says it all in dazzling simplicity: flowers and thorns, beauty and pain – the marriage of May.

The hawthorn, as Stafford rightly stated, has changed the entire face of Britain: it’s a palimpsest of old land practices. This hardy tree, when cut and laid, is in many ways responsible for our very idea of the British countryside because of its usefulness for hedging. When much of Britain was enclosed in the eighteenth century, the new fields were marked by hawthorn tree hedges, shaping the landscape into the familiar patchwork of fields. Fields bounded by hawthorn hedges form a deeply-ingrained mental image of the English landscape – which is why the uprooting of old hedgerows in modern farming practice can be such a psychological shock. More than that, the loss of hawthorn hedgerows has also had an impact on wildlife, contributing to the decline of many species of bird.  In his poem ‘The Thrush’s Nest’, John Clare observed the close affinity between hawthorn and thrush:

Within a thick and spreading hawthorn bush
That overhung a molehill large and round,
I heard from morn to morn a merry thrush
Sing hymns to sunrise, and I drank the sound
With joy; and often, an intruding guest,
I watched her secret toil from day to day –
How true she warped the moss to form a nest,
And modelled it within with wood and clay;
And by and by, like heath-bells gilt with dew,
There lay her shining eggs, as bright as flowers,
Ink-spotted over shells of greeny blue;
And there I witnessed, in the sunny hours,
A brood of nature’s minstrels chirp and fly,
Glad as the sunshine and the laughing sky.

A typical Poplar Tree lined road - south of France photo by Brian Jones httpbracken.pixyblog.com

A typical poplar-lined road in the south of France (photo by Brian Jones, http://bracken.pixyblog.com)

When, in the 1970s, we began travelling through France to campsites in the Dordogne or Cevennes, the element of the landscape that most impressed itself upon me was that of miles of poplars that lined the routes nationales as we drove south.  In her essay on the poplar, Fiona Stafford noted that many of those in northern France were planted all in one go, on the instruction of Napoleon, in order to shade troops as they marched towards the French border.  The fact that they rapidly grew tall in orderly rows meant that they were perfect for lining trunk roads, or for gentlemen – who, on the Grand Tour, had seen the ‘Lombardy Poplar’ lining roads and rivers in northern Italy and had decided to utilise them line avenues on their country estates.

Poplars by the Mersey near Sale

Poplars by the Mersey near Sale

Poplar, said Stafford, is not much good as wood these days  (it’s mainly used for matches), but is, surprisingly, the most modern of trees, being the first tree to have had its complete DNA sequenced. This breakthrough has allowed experiments in tree breeding to begin – with objectives such as combating carbon emissions, and developing bio-fuels and bio-degradable plastics.

For such a plain, column like tree there are, surprisingly, many literary references to poplars.  Among those mentioned by Fiona Stafford was ‘Binsey Poplars’, written by Gerard Manley-Hopkins as an early protest against tree-felling – an act of ‘spiritual vandalism’ – when the poplars in the water meadows at Binsey were cut down.  It was a landscape that Hopkins had known intimately while studying at Oxford, and the felling ‘symbolized the careless destruction of nature by modernity’:

 felled 1879

My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow & river & wind-wandering weed-winding bank.

O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew —
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch, her being só slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all,
Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc unselve
The sweet especial scene,
Rural scene, a rural scene,
Sweet especial rural scene.

Then there are the many artistic representations of poplars – ranging from Turner and Monet (the many paintings in all seasons of the poplars on the banks of the river Epte) and Van Gogh (who painted poplars many times in his life) to Paul Cezanne and Roger Fry.

Turner, A distant castle with poplar trees beside a river,1840

JMW Turner, A distant castle with poplar trees beside a river,1840

Monet Poplars on the River Epte,

Poplars on the Epte by Claude Monet, 1891

Claude Monet, Sunlight Effect under the Poplars, 1887

Claude Monet, Sunlight Effect under the Poplars,1887

Paul Cézanne, Poplars, 1890

Paul Cézanne, Poplars, 1890

Roger Fry,River with Poplars, 1912

Roger Fry,River with Poplars, 1912

Avenue of Poplars at Sunset by Vincent van Gogh, 1884

Avenue of Poplars at Sunset by Vincent van Gogh, 1884

Vincent van Gogh Two Poplars on a Road Through the Hills, 1889

Vincent van Gogh, Two Poplars on a road through the hills, 1889

Earlier I mentioned Cezanne’s obsession with painting the pines that framed the view of Mont St Victoire he saw every day when he climbed the hill above his home outside Aix-en-Provence.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think he ever painted the poplars cypress [see comment below!] which rise in the foreground of that view.  Maybe they weren’t there in the 1880s, though they were present when I photographed the scene a few years ago.

Poplars and Mont St Victoire

Poplars and Mont St Victoire

Whatever their economic or utilitarian value, the thing about trees for me is their daily presence in the world around us – ‘constant as the northern star’ as Joni Mitchell wrote in an entirely different context.  Constant and yet ever-changing: they may be the most important means by which we measure the seasons.  There is, too, something almost inexpressible about how we live out our lives amongst living things which – if they can escape the chainsaw – can survive for centuries or even millennia. They are truly, in the words of a poem by WS Merwin which coincidentally appeared in Saturday’s Guardian, the way we see the world:

‘Elegy for a Walnut Tree’ by WS Merwin

Old friend now there is no one alive
who remembers when you were young
it was high summer when I first saw you
in the blaze of day most of my life ago
with the dry grass whispering in your shade
and already you had lived through wars
and echoes of wars around your silence
through days of parting and seasons of absence
with the house emptying as the years went their way
until it was home to bats and swallows
and still when spring climbed toward summer
you opened once more the curled sleeping fingers
of newborn leaves as though nothing had happened
you and the seasons spoke the same language
and all these years I have looked through your limbs
to the river below and the roofs and the night
and you were the way I saw the world

See also

Hockney, Printmaker: a joyous celebration of mastery

Hockney, Printmaker: a joyous celebration of mastery

Hockney, Self-portrait, 1954

Self-portrait, 1954

Barely a month since seeing the Walker’s early Hockney exhibition, we enjoy a much bigger, comprehensive survey of David Hockney’s long and distinguished career as a printmaker at Dulwich Picture Gallery.  It’s a joyous celebration of his mastery of the techniques of etching and lithography, timed to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the artist’s first prints, made while he was a student at Bradford College of Art in 1954.

I was interested in everything at first … It was thrilling after being at the Grammar School, to be at a school where I knew I would enjoy everything they asked me to do. I loved it all and I used to spend twelve hours a day in the art school. For four years I spent twelve hours a day there every day.

Hockney got into lithography early, as demonstrated by the three prints from 1954 that are exhibited here.  Here is his first self-portrait, in which he stares out at the viewer with folded arms, pudding-basin haircut and the round glasses that were to become his trademark, a portrait of his mother working at her sewing machine, and a drawing of the chip shop down the road.

Woman with a Sewing Machine 1954

Woman with a Sewing Machine, 1954

Hockney Fish and Chip Shop, 1954

Fish and Chip Shop, 1954

The exhibition opens, however, with examples of Hockney’s rapidly-developing skill in etching – beginning with the mischievous Myself and my Heroes, made while he was a student the Royal College of Art in 1961 in which Walt Whitman and Mahatma Gandhi (with haloes) stand beside a young, flat-capped Hockney. This was a period in which Hockney characteristically scrawled lines of text on his images, and here – along with quotes by his two heroes – Hockney has summed up his own achievement in the immortal words, ‘I am 23 years old and I wear glasses’. (‘I hadn’t made any quotes’, Hockney later explained).

Myself and my Heroes 1961

Myself and my Heroes, 1961 

Hockney in 2012, aged 74

Hockney in 2012, aged 74: grumpy old man with fag

These days Hockney may sound like a grumpy old man (especially when he’s on about smoking), but back then he was an angry young man. The Diploma from 1962 came about after he and four other students were told they might not be allowed to graduate from the Royal College of Art.  Thumbing his nose at the college bigwigs, Hockney has etched his own diploma, lampooning senior figures and portraying he and the other four failed students bent double below.

Hockney The Diploma, 1962

The Diploma, 1962

From these beginnings we move on to three well-known series of illustrations: A Rake’s Progress (1961-63), Fourteen Poems from CP Cavafy (1966), and Illustrations for Six Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm (1969)Alongside portraits of some of his famous sitters and friends, these reveal Hockney’s growing stature as an exceptionally fine draughtsman and his rapidly-developing skills in etching and printmaking.

Hockney The Seven Stone Weakling, A Rake's Progress, 1961

The Seven Stone Weakling, from A Rake’s Progress, 1961

Hockney Bedlam, A Rake's Progress, 1961

Bedlam, from A Rake’s Progress, 1961

A Rake’s Progress was conceived in New York in July 1961; Hockney formed the idea of taking Hogarth’s set of eight engravings to ‘somehow play with them and set it in New York in modern times. What I liked was telling a story visually.  Hogarth’s story has no words: it’s a graphic tale.’ My eye was caught particularly by the witty and slightly self-deprecating plate ‘The Seven-Stone Weakling’, and ‘Bedlam’ which resulted from Hockney, in 1961 New York, seeing people with what he thought were hearing aids and later discovering they were actually the first transistor radios, as yet unknown in Britain.

Browsing the plates of A Rake’s Progress evoked echoes of Grayson Perry being similarly inspired more recently – and of another curious connection.  One place where you can see the Hogarth series displayed is the in the John Soane Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.  Soane was a leading architect in the early 19th century, responsible for many commissions around London – including the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

The Marriage, 1962

The Marriage, 1962

The Marriage, an etching made in 1962, came about when Hockney was looking around a museum with a friend:

I caught sight of him looking at something on a wall, so I saw him in profile.  To one side of him was a sculpture in wood of a seated woman … Egyptian, I believe.  For a moment they seemed to be together – like a couple posing.

One Night, 1966

One Night, from Fourteen Poems from CP Cavafy, 1966

The Shop Window of a Tobacco Store 1966

The Shop Window of a Tobacco Store, from Fourteen Poems from CP Cavafy, 1966

In 1966 Hockney started work on  Illustrations for Fourteen Poems from CP Cavafy, a book of etchings inspired by Cavafy’s poems. The series reveals Hockney’s supreme mastery of line drawing, and the curators have grouped with the Cavafy images other prints which reinforce this impression.  While working on the Cavafy etchings, Hockney visited Beirut for inspiration, then an exotic and cosmopolitan city like Alexandria, which had been the setting for Cavafy’s turn of the century poems.

Back in London, Hockney worked from photographs, his own drawings and directly from life onto copper printing plates.Hockney did not have a particular poems in mind when working – they were matched up afterwards, chosen from about twenty etchings made in around three months. Some images visualise incidents in the poems. Others are less specific, reflecting a mood or shared experience. Hockney’s bold images were defiant in their representation of homosexual love.

Hockney 'The Student - Homage to Picasso

The Student – Homage to Picasso, 1973

Hockney Artist and Model, 1973

Artist and Model, 1973

Next are two wonderful prints – made in 1973, the year after the death of Picasso – that tell of Hockney’s fascination with Picasso that began when he was a student at the Royal College of Art.  Hockney has continued to acknowledge the influence on his work of Picasso’s art and of Picasso as a model of creative freedom. In Homage to Picasso, Hockney portrays himself as a student, approaching Picasso carrying his portfolio for inspection, while Artist and Model is a marvellous etching of himself with Picasso, the two of them seated at a table, the aged Spanish artist dressed in a stripy sailor’s shirt and examining, perhaps working on, a sheet of paper in front of him. Hockney is seated opposite, wearing only a pair of spectacles, his nakedness expressing his vulnerability.

Martin Gayford once wrote of this etching:

It is a poignant image of a close artistic relationship that could not exist in reality. Picasso died in 1972. The little etching, dated 1973-4, was created in his memory. Later, Hockney confessed, “I would have loved to have met him, even once. It would have been something to remember, a great thrill.” He called the print ‘Artist and Model’, and depicted himself in the latter role, as naked sitter.

Hockney Panama Hat, 1972

Panama Hat, 1972

So much wit and humour runs through Hockney’s work: Panama Hat is his portrait of Henry Geldzahler, the influential curator, art historian and critic who was also a personal friend who had a profound influence on Hockney (for example, recommending that he read Wallace Stevens’ poem The Man With The Blue Guitar).  In 1971, Henry had asked Hockney to contribute a work of art to a charity fund-raiser.  Geldzahler declined Hockney’s offer to make his portrait, believing it might look vain.  So Hockney made an etching of Henry’s trademark jacket and hat – a portrait of Henry without Henry.

Hockney Henry At the Table, 1976

Henry At the Table, 1976

Henry recommended that David read Wallace Stevens’s long poem ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’, which was itself inspired by a painting: Picasso’s The Old Guitarist. In the poem, Stevens meditates on the relationship between art and reality:

They said ‘You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.’

The man replied, ‘Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.’

The sentiment attracted Hockney: the idea that reality is transformed by the medium in which it is represented is a cornerstone of his aesthetic, and it is why he has worked in so many media, always searching for new ways to reveal ‘things as they are’.  For Stevens, as for Hockney, reality is not an object, but an activity, a product of the imagination shaping the world.

Stevens’s poem inspired Hockney to create an extended meditation on the process of artistic transformation, of print-making as being analogous to poetry.  The key for Hockney came in Stevens’s line, ‘poetry is the subject of the poem’, a line that Hockney borrows and reworks as ‘Etching is the Subject’, the title of one of the Blue Guitar etchings.

Hockney The Poet, from The Blue Guitar, 1976-77

The Poet, from The Blue Guitar, 1976-77

Hockney Blue Guitar Etching is the Subject, 1976-77

 Etching is the Subject, from The Blue Guitar, 1976-77

The series is also a profound homage to Picasso: as the frontispiece to the portfolio clearly spells out: ‘Etchings by David Hockney who was inspired by Wallace Stevens who was inspired by Pablo Picasso’. Hockney has explained that the etchings ‘were not conceived as literal illustrations of the poem but as an interpretation of its themes in visual terms. Like the poem, they are about transformations within art as well as the relation between reality and the imagination, so these are pictures and different styles of representation juxtaposed and reflected and dissolved within the same frame’.

Hockney Margueritas, 1973

Margueritas, 1973

At this time, Hockney was following in Picasso’s footsteps in another sense: through his choice of a new etching technique. While living in Paris between 1973 and 1975, he worked extensively at the Atelier Crommelynck where Picasso had made prints during the final two decades of his life. Aldo Crommelynck introduced Hockney to both the use of the sugar-lift technique, which enabled him to recreate brush marks on the etched plate, and the use of a single plate for multi-coloured etchings rather than having to register separate plates for each colour. Both of these techniques were revelations for Hockney and were essential to the genesis of his ‘Blue Guitar’ prints. Margueritas (above) was one of the first prints Hockney made using this technique developed by Picasso.

Hockney Red Wire Plant, 1998

Red Wire Plant, 1998

This comprehensive exhibition reveals the extent to which Hockney has constantly evolved as an artist, exploring new artistic trends and portraying a wide variety of subject matter – including his dogs.

Hockney Horizontal Dogs, 1998

Horizontal Dogs, 1998

Hockney. Two Vases in the Louvre, 1974

Two Vases in the Louvre, 1974

Hockney. Contrejour in the French Style, 1974

Contrejour in the French Style, 1974

There are many portraits here; rather than accept commissions, Hockney has always preferred to depict his friends, and one constant sitter over the years has been the fashion designer, Celia Birtwell. She appears here twice – in a superb 1973 drawing (below), and in a 1989 etching Soft Celia which I didn’t particularly like.

Hockney, Celia, 1973

Celia, 1973

There are also the superb portraits of Henry Geldzahler, and of his lovers, Peter Schlesinger and Gregory Evans, represented in the exquisite pencil drawing Small Head of Gregory.

Hockney Small Head of Gregory, 1976

Small Head of Gregory, 1976

A favourite of mine for a long time has been the series of prints that Hockney produced in 1973 that depict six weather states: fog, sun, rain, lightning, snow and wind.  In the gallery at Dulwich I sat for a while, entranced by a group of primary school children who had been positioned by their teachers in front of the prints, asked to decide which was their favourite – and then explain the reasons why.  Most of their responses showed how intently these children had looked at the images, noticing ways in which Hockney’s differing approaches to each weather condition reflected his grappling with how to depict the particular physical properties of rainwater, sunlight, or a blanket of snow.

Hockney  The Weather Series

The Weather series, 1973

Having listened to the kids’ thoughts on the artist’s methods, it was interesting read Hockney’s words alongside on how he tackled the work.  He had been inspired by a trip to Japan in 1970, and both ‘Snow’ and ‘Wind’ reference Japanese Ukiyo-e woodcuts.  On the genesis of ‘Rain’, Hockney commented that it was related to  a painting he had done in London very similar to it, called The Japanese Rain on Canvas, in which he had used a watering can to pour diluted paint onto the canvas on the floor.  In the lithographic version he replicated this effect by dripping a dilute form of lithographic ink down the stone.

Hockney Rain

Rain, from The Weather Series, 1973

Hockney Wind, from The Weather Series, 1973

Wind, from The Weather Series, 1973

Hockney explains that the series is not just about the weather, or a homage to Japanese prints, but is also about ‘the weather drawn’.  ‘Because in each one’, Hockney has said, ‘ the problem was, not just making a representation of the weather, but how to draw it. It means that the subject of the prints is not just the weather: the subject matter is drawing’.

The print here of the wind, for instance.  I couldn’t figure out how to do wind, make a visual representation of wind, because normally only the effects of wind show themselves.  So I kept thinking of palm trees bending and everything, and it all seemed just a little bit corny or ordinary or something, and I was just on the beach at Malibu one day and suddenly a piece of paper blew by, and it suddenly dawned on me, I’ll simply do all the other prints I’ve done blowing away across Melrose Avenue.

Hockney Afternoon Swimming, 1980

Afternoon Swimming, 1980

One focus of the recent exhibition at Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery was Hockney’s obsession with capturing the properties of water, and it’s been such a recurrent theme in his work that the Dulwich exhibition also includes several examples of it.  There is Afternoon Swimming (above) and two examples from the 1978 series Lithographic Water.

Hockney Lithographic Water Made of Lines and Crayon, 1978

Lithographic Water Made of Lines and Crayon, 1978

Hockney. Lithographic Water Made of Lines, 1978

Lithographic Water Made of Lines, 1978

The movement of water, and the effect of light upon its surface offered Hockney the opportunity to introduce areas of abstraction within his figurative paintings, and an artistic challenge:

It is a formal problem to represent water, to describe water, because it can be anything – it can be any colour, it’s moveable, it has no set visual description.

David Hockney: Lilies (1971)

 Lilies, 1971

Hockney Still Life with Book , 1973

Still Life with Book, 1973

Hockney Still Life, 1965

Still Life, 1965

Hockney Coloured Flowers made out of Paper and Ink, 1971

Coloured Flowers Made Out of Paper and Ink, 1971

Throughout his career, Hockney has constantly returned to etching and lithograph, regarding prints as a valid alternative to his paintings rather than mere complement to them whose purpose was the cheaper dissemination of an image. Anyone looking around this exhibition could not come away under the misapprehension that etching and lithography are techniques somehow secondary to painting.  And what makes this great display of prints so stimulating and entertaining is what they reveal, not just of Hockney’s skill in these techniques, but of a mind restlessly reflecting on problems of representation – often with wit and humour. So, in Coloured Flowers Made Out of Paper and Ink, for example, he deconstructs the artificiality of the image both in the title, and by arranging the coloured pencils he used to create the image in the foreground.

Hockney Matelot Kevin Druez, 2009

Matelot Kevin Druez, 2009

Hockney is an artist who constantly looks to the new – including the implications or opportunities that new technologies offer artists.  Matelot Kevin Druez, from 2009, is an image drawn on a computer and then inkjet printed. There are other examples of Hockney’s fascination with computer drawings, the best being Rain on the Studio Window, a prelude to his iPad works:

I was drawing a portrait when it began to rain.  Sitting under the window and watching the rain run down it, I could immediately change my subject, get as it were a clean sheet of paper (an empty screen) and draw as the rain came down.  No other medium would have allowed that change so quickly. With nature the moment rules.

David Hockney: Rain on the Studio Window (2009).

Rain on the Studio Window, 2009

This is a great exhibition that demonstrates Hockney’s achievement across a long career. Hockney seems as fresh and as relevant today as he was 60 years ago when he made those first prints at Bradford Art College.

In this YouTube video, Richard Lloyd curator of Hockney, Printmaker at Dulwich Picture Gallery takes us around the exhibition:

See also

David Hockney: Early Reflections at the Walker

David Hockney: Early Reflections at the Walker

Hockney exhibition

David Hockney: Early Reflections is a wonderful – and wonderfully concise – exhibition at the Walker exploring the first decade and a half in the ascending arc of Hockney’s career, focussing on his experiences and the work he produced during the period of his growing success from 1960 to the mid-1970s.

In 1959, aged 22, Hockney left Bradford, where he had studied at the College of Art, for London and the Royal College of Art. There, between 1959 and 1962 he would begin to find himself, both as an artist  and as a person.  In an interview Hockney gave a few years ago on the occasion of a return visit to the RCA he said:

I had only visited London three or four times before that – I was very provincial, and the College was so lively. I’d left home, was living in a room in Earl’s Court and had about £100 a term to live on. You could do exactly what you wanted. You could even smoke. I remember having to sandpaper off the nicotine stains on my fingers before going to visit the registrar to borrow some money. They couldn’t be seen to be lending to fellows that smoked.

Hockney wanted to be modern (intrigued by Abstract Expressionism, he had hitchhiked down to London to see Jackson Pollock at the Whitechapel in 1956), but at the same time, as he explained in the same interview, he was still interested in  ‘depicting what the world looks like’.  While at the RCA, a fellow student, Ron Kitaj, helped Hockney to get his bearings, telling him to paint what he felt serious about. Hockney felt serious about books, politics and people.

Michael Glover, reviewing the exhibition in the Independent, wrote that:

Hockney’s works from those Royal College years are the products of a mind in turmoil, a talent trying to break through to something authentic. Hockney tries to paint the figure, but it is a figure partly disguised – and even partly explained – by words added to the canvas. […] Many of these early paintings came bearing urgent messages about his own situation as a young gay man in a world that not only found such behaviour inadmissible, but still deemed it illegal. In part, their urgent, heady feel is to do with the fact that Hockney is striving to be a propagandist about his own sexuality. And the coming allure of America, which he first visited in 1961, and which he begins to paint almost immediately … is his recognition that as a young gay man, he would be able to live more freely there, relaxing into his art, relaxing into his own life.

In the RCA interview, Hockney put it this way:

In 1961, homosexuality was illegal, but I never gave it a thought. The first straightforward gay men I met were at the College – Quentin Blake and Adrian Bird. The Bohemian world was different. There weren’t people telling you off because you weren’t prim and proper or respectable. You were a free spirit and did what you wanted to do. Bohemia was classless. It’s kind of lost now. These days, even the gays, they want to get married. I’m glad that I’ve lived when I have. It was freer.

Hockney on a return visit to the RCA

Hockney on a return visit to the RCA

David Hockney:Early Reflections presents work which Hockney completed at the RCA and in the years soon after. Both the Arts Council and the Walker Art Gallery acquired works early in the artist’s career, and the exhibition takes as its starting point a selection of his paintings, drawings and prints held by both collections.  The Arts Council Collection holds major paintings, including Hockney’s iconic We Two Boys Together Clinging, and preparatory studies for others. It also holds prints from his series of etchings inspired by the poetry of Constantine P Cavafy, which cemented his reputation as a printmaker. Through the John Moores Painting Prize the Walker Art Gallery was able to acquire one of Hockney’s most famous pictures, Peter Getting out of Nick’s Pool, when the artist won the competition in 1967 at the age of 30.

The exhibition identifies and explores four key themes in Hockney’s work in this period: a growing confidence in expressing his homosexuality; his skill as a draughtsman and printmaker, particularly seen in his responses to Cavafy’s poems; his obsession with capturing the properties of water; and lastly, portraiture, which has continued to play a central role in his output.  Let’s take a look at each of these themes.

I'm In the Mood for Love, 1961

‘I’m In the Mood for Love’, 1961

In the Mood for Love

The exhibition opens with a section that looks at some of the major early paintings produced by Hockney at the Royal College of Art between 1959 and 1962.  They are works which still, half a century later, take your breath away with their cheeky determination to challenge a repressive status quo.

When Hockney entered the Royal College of Art in 1959, a homosexual act between two men was illegal in the UK. It was not until 1967 that this was partially decriminalised. Against this backdrop, Hockney pursued his personal and artistic identity as a young gay man. He found acceptance and inspiration within London’s homosexual sub-culture and later the more liberating environment he encountered in New York and California. Alongside his artistic development, Hockney became a pioneer of gay subject matter.

Introducing this section, the curators have written:

As a student, Hockney wanted to develop an individual and modern style in which to express himself and explore the formal concerns of painting. He found inspiration in the visually raw work of artists like Francis Bacon and Jean Dubuffet. Hockney evolved an approach that was part abstraction, part representation, in which the energetic and expressionistic surface of his pictures appeared scrubbed and smeared. Gradually, language also appeared, like the graffiti in public toilets: ‘I still hadn’t the nerve to paint figure pictures; the idea of figure pictures was considered really anti-modern, so my solution was to begin using words. . .’

Text soon became a code through which his gay identity could be both hidden and – to those in the know – revealed. Hockney took risks in expressing his sexuality in this way, but was passionate in his reasons for doing this: ‘What one must remember about some of these pictures is that they were partly propaganda of something I felt hadn’t been propagandised as a subject: homosexuality.’

The work which gives this section its title – I’m In the Mood for Love– was painted in 1961 and is an autobiographical celebration of Hockney’s first trip to New York trip that year. In the format of a diary page open at July 9 – his birthday – he portrays himself as a prowling wolf or devil with the distinctive glasses and recently bleached blond hair. He stands between two skyscrapers whose shapes are sexually suggestive. Hockney’s raised arm signposts the New York district of Queens, which is obviously a pun. It is hot – ‘temperature 96°’ is written across the patch of cloud. This is one of the works acquired by the Royal College of Art during Hockney’s studies, or on graduation, in 1961 or 1962, as an example of his student work.

Study for Dollboy, 1960

‘Study for Doll Boy’, 1960, chalk on paper

Doll Boy was a slightly earlier work that similarly contained coded references to Hockney’s sexuality.  The oil painting is not on display – instead we see a study in chalk on paper.  ‘Doll Boy’ was inspired by that year’s Cliff Richard hit single ‘Living Doll’. Hockney explains:

I’m not a great pop music fan, I wasn’t then and I’m not now. But I’m a lover of music and a lover of songs and I like singing. Cliff Richard was a very popular singer and I used to cut out photographs of him from newspapers and magazines and stick them up around my little cubicle at the Royal College of Art, partly because other people used to stick up girl pin-ups, and I thought, I’m not going to do that, can’t do that, and there’s something just as sexy, and I stuck them up. He had a song in which the words were, ‘She’s a real live walking talking living doll’, and he sang it rather sexily. The title of this painting is based on that line. He’s referring to some girl, so I changed it to a boy.

Dollboy, 1961

‘Doll Boy’, 1961

The study, like the finished painting, represents unfulfilled desire. The heavy abstract shape at the top of the canvas suggests a burden carried by the figure.

We Two Boys Together Clinging, 1961

‘We Two Boys Together Clinging’, 1961

We Two Boys Together Clinging, painted in 1961, references a 19th century poem by Walt Whitman who, like Hockney, was challenging the prevailing social mores in code:

We two boys together clinging,
One the other never leaving,
Up and down the roads going – North and South excursions making,
Power enjoying – elbows stretching – fingers clutching,
Arm’d and fearless—eating, drinking, sleeping, loving,
No law less than ourselves owning – sailing, soldiering, thieving, threatening,
Misers, menials, priests alarming—air breathing, water drinking, on the turf or the sea-beach dancing,
Cities wrenching, ease scorning, statutes mocking, feebleness chasing,
Fulfilling our foray.

The painting was completed towards the end of Hockney’s second year at the Royal College of Art and incorporates two lines of the poem which have been scribbled on the right-hand side to offer a commentary on the men’s activities. The painting also references a newspaper clipping detailing a climbing accident (‘Two Boys Cling to Cliff all Night’), which Hockney interpreted as an allusion to his idol, Cliff Richard.

The two protagonists in this painting are seen exchanging a passionate embrace and kiss in front of a lavatory wall covered in grafitti. The use of an untutored or child-like style was suggested to Hockney by the work of the French artist Jean Dubuffet. Like the graffiti, this style gives the painting a crudity and vigour but also shrouds the identity of the artist in mock-anonymity.

Portrait of Cavafy in Alexandria 1966

‘Portrait of Cavafy in Alexandria’, 1966

Picturing Poetry

Hockney is an exceptionally fine draughtsman, and the second section of the exhibition presents several superb examples of his developing skills in etching and printmaking whilst a student.  The curators have married this to an exploration of  Hockney’s interest in poetry and, in particular, how he was inspired by the poems of one of his favourite writers, Constantine P Cavafy. Hockney liked his direct and simple poems about doomed homosexual love.

David Hockney started printmaking at the Royal College of Art in 1960 having heard that materials were provided free in the Printing Department. He was a natural draughtsman and the medium of etching in particular suited his love of line drawing.  In 1966 Hockney started work on  Illustrations for Fourteen Poems from CP Cavafy, a book of etchings inspired by Cavafy’s poems.

For inspiration Hockney visited Beirut, then an exotic and cosmopolitan city like Alexandria, the setting for Cavafy’s poems. Back in London, Hockney worked from photographs, his own drawings and directly from life onto copper printing plates. Hockney did not have a particular poems in mind when working – they were matched up afterwards, chosen from about twenty etchings made in around three months. Some images visualise incidents in the poems. Others are less specific, reflecting a mood or shared experience. Hockney’s bold images were defiant in their representation of homosexual love. The etchings were published as a limited edition book and loose-leaf portfolios.

Two Boys Aged 23 or 24 1966

‘Two Boys Aged 23 or 24’, 1966

Constantine Cavafy was born in the Egyptian port of Alexandria in 1863 to parents of Greek heritage. His father was a merchant, whose family business had offices in several cities including Liverpool. Cavafy actually lived in Liverpool for a short time after his father’s death, but after further travels he settled in Alexandria, and later in Athens, where he died in 1933.  As a young man Cavafy led a mundane existence, working as a civil servant. But he led a double-life, and in private he pursued secretive homosexual encounters. In his youth Cavafy had been tormented by his desire for other men, but as he grew older he came to terms with his sexuality.

Cavafy began writing poetry in his teens. As well as historical poems making reference to Greek history, Cavafy wrote poems set in the exotic, cosmopolitan city of Alexandria, about doomed love between young men. The events in his poems were largely drawn from his erotic imagination rather than from real life. For illustrations for fourteen poems from CP Cavafy, Hockney worked with the poets Stephen Spender and Nikos Stangos, who provided a translation of the selected Cavafy poems.

One of the finest drawings here is Portrait of Cavafy in Alexandria, the etching used to accompany Cavafy’s poem, ‘The mirror at the entrance’.  The poem describes an old mirror that briefly enjoys reflecting the perfection of a boy’s face as he delivers a parcel to the house. Cavafy’s poetic idea of giving feelings to an inanimate object appealed to Hockney as an artist. Like him, it had the ability to appreciate and reflect male beauty.

In the entrance of that sumptuous home
there was an enormous mirror, very old;
acquired at least eighty years ago.
A strikingly beautiful boy, a tailor’s shop-assistant,
(on Sunday afternoons, an amateur athlete),
was standing with a package.  He handed it
to one of the household, who then went back inside
to fetch a receipt.  The tailor’s shop-assistant
remained alone, and waited.
He drew near the mirror, and stood gazing at himself,
and straightening his tie.  Five minutes later
they brought him the receipt.  He took it and left.
But the ancient mirror, which had seen and seen again,
throughout its lifetime of so many years,
thousands of objects and faces—
but the ancient mirror now became elated,
inflated with pride, because it had received upon itself
perfect beauty, for a few minutes.

The Beirut seafront provided the setting for this drawing.  Cavafy’s portrait was based on photographs Hockney was given.

‘Two Boys Aged 23 or 24’ is an etching with aquatint that accompanies the Cavafy poem in which two hard-up young lovers celebrate a card win by renting a room in a ‘house of vice’:

Their good looks, their exquisite youthfulness,
the sensitive love they shared
were refreshed, livened, invigorated
by the sixty pounds from the card table.
Now all joy and vitality, feeling and charm,
they went—not to the homes of their respectable families
(where they were no longer wanted anyway)—
they went to a familiar and very special
house of debauchery, and they asked for a bedroom
and expensive drinks, and they drank again.
And when the expensive drinks were finished
and it was close to four in the morning,
happy, they gave themselves to love.

The drawing was based on a lithograph of Hockney’s friends, the artists Mo McDermott and Dale Chisman, in bed.  The striking bed cover was created using aquatint, an etching process that gives areas of softer tone to an image.

According to the Prescriptions of Ancient Musicians, 1966

‘According to the Prescriptions of Ancient Musicians’, 1966

I’ve selected a third etching from those on display – According to the Prescriptions of Ancient Musicians – that on publication was matched to Cavafy’s poem in which a man wishes for a potion to roll back the years and reunite him with the lover of his youth: ‘bring me back the age of twenty-three again; bring my friend at twenty years old back to me again – his beauty, and his love’.

The Sexton Disguised as a Ghost Stood Still as a Stone, 1969

‘The Sexton Disguised as a Ghost Stood Still as a Stone’, 1969

Also on display are etchings, drawn directly onto copper plates, which Hockney made for Illustrations for Six FairyTales from the Brothers Grimm in 1969. For the story ‘The Boy who left home to learn fear’, Hockney interpreted descriptive passages of text from the sinister story in which a sexton disguises himself to frighten the boy: ‘He stood there like a stone, not making as sound’.  Hockney draped a handkerchief over a pencil to use for his model.

On Reflection

This was my favourite section of the exhibition, showing a selection of Hockney’s paintings in which he meets up to the challenge of depicting water. The paintings he made in California of swimming pools are probably the works for which he is best known.

Hockney moved to California in 1964. There, he began to engage with the problem of portraying water – something which has remained an obsession throughout the years as he has sought to capture its constantly changing appearance, whether in the ripples of a swimming pool or the sprays and drops of a shower. He said in 1976 that ‘the idea of painting moving water in a very slow and careful manner was (and still is) very appealing to me’.

Hockney 3

Hockney’s submission slip for the 1967 John Moores

Since the Walker owns the most famous example of this obsession, Peter Getting out of Nicks Pool, it’s not surprising that it should form the centrepiece of this section.  Hockney made the painting in 1966 and entered it for the sixth John Moores Exhibition in 1967 (his submission slip is on display).  The painting won first prize and was given to the Walker by Sir John Moores.

In 1966 Hockney had travelled to Los Angeles for the second time. Attracted by the sunny climate and relaxed atmosphere of West Coast America, he began to record the lifestyle there in his work. He went on to produce a series of paintings based on the theme of the swimming pool.  Here, Hockney’s friend Peter Schlesinger is depicted climbing out of the swimming pool of Nick Wilder, a Los Angeles gallery owner. The painting is a composite view. Schlesinger did not actually model in the pool; the pose derives from a snapshot of him leaning against his MG sports car. The white border and square format of the painting are reminiscent of the Polaroid prints Hockney used as studies for the composition.

Peter Getting out of Nicks Pool, 1967

‘Peter Getting out of Nicks Pool’, 1967

It’s a painting of a dream come true.  Since his teens, America had been for Hockney a kind of fantasy – vibrant, rich, unstuffy and full of good-looking young men. California, with its sunshine, blue skies and relaxed gay scene was central to this dream of a place far removed from the dull skies and prudery of Bradford and England at the time. During his first visit in 1961 he found, to his delight, that his romantic fantasy was in fact a reality. In early 1964 Hockney settled full-time in Los Angeles.

David Hockney after winning the John Moores Painting Prize in 1967

David Hockney after winning the John Moores Painting Prize in 1967

The movement of water, and the effect of light upon its surface offered Hockney the opportunity to introduce areas of abstraction within his figurative paintings, and an artistic challenge:

It is a formal problem to represent water, to describe water, because it can be anything – it can be any colour, it’s moveable, it has no set visual description.

To evoke water, Hockney evolved a highly stylised technique influenced by advertising graphics.  Hockney used the human figure, whether swimming or showering  to produce shape and movement into water.

1972 Munich Olympic poster

1972 Munich Olympic poster

There’s a poster here that Hockney was commissioned to design for the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. By then his reputation was well-established and prints were an important part of his artistic output. The five artists who were commissioned to produce posters were left free to choose their themes, but encouraged to incorporate a relationship with the Olympic idea. Hockney’s passion for representing water and reflections made swimming an obvious choice.

Le Plongeur (Paper Pool 18), 1978

Le Plongeur (Paper Pool 18), 1978

For me, though, the work that leapt out from this section (and indeed my favourite of the entire show) was Le Plongeur (Paper Pool 18), one of 29 experimental ‘paper pools’ made in 1978.  This one is owned by Bradford Art Gallery and, like the others in the series is a vast, Matisse-like work made of coloured and pressed paper pulp.

The ‘paper pools’ were made during a six-week period in 1978 with Kenneth Tyler, a well-known New York printmaker. Tyler’s unique, water-based paper pulp technique combined painting and printmaking. He encouraged Hockney to try it. Hockney was enthusiastic about the challenge of a new medium using his favourite preoccupation, water. He liked the pulpy tactile surface texture and irregular outlines. These offered a change from the flat, regular areas of colour given by acrylic paint. Hockney’s subject was Tyler’s swimming pool. To enhance the effects of light and movement in the water, Hockney introduced the diver (le plongeur), his friend Gregory Evans. The large scale of the paper pools creates an immersive experience.

John Edwards, a Liverpool-born lawyer lent his Hockney painting to the Walker Art Gallery

John Edwards, a Liverpool-born lawyer, lent ‘Study for Portrait of an Artist (Pool with two Figures)’ to the Walker for the exhibition

Hung alongside Le Plongeur is a study for one of Hockney’s best-known paintings, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with two Figures), that dates from the time of his break-up from his partner and muse Peter Schlesinger in about 1971.

In the finished painting, Peter Schlesinger is the figure looking into the pool. Edmund White told the story of the relationship behind the painting in an article for the Guardian:

In the summer of 1966, Hockney was teaching a drawing course at the University of California at Santa Cruz, where he met a 17-year-old student, Peter Schlesinger. They soon became lovers – and Peter became Hockney’s muse. As Schlesinger put it, “On the first day of class, the professor walked in – he was a bleached blond; wearing a tomato-red suit, a green-and-white polka-dot tie with a matching hat, and round black cartoon glasses; and speaking with a Yorkshire accent. At the time, David Hockney was only beginning to become established in England, and I had never heard of him.”

For Hockney, the memory was just as striking: “It was incredible to me to meet in California a young, very sexy, attractive boy who was also curious and intelligent. In California you can meet curious and intelligent people, but generally they’re not the sexy boy of your fantasy as well. To me this was incredible; it was more real. The fantasy part disappeared because it was the real person you could talk to.”

Pool With Two Figures, 1971

‘Portrait of an Artist (Pool With Two Figures)’, 1971

A caption beside the painting tells the story of its creation. It was inspired by two photographs accidentally coming together.  One, from 1966, was a distorted figure swimming under water. The other was a boy staring at the ground.  Hockney destroyed his first unsuccessful version of the painting. To prepare the second version he photographed a boy, John St Clair, swimming in a pool in southern France. Hockney’s friend Mo McDermott stood in for Peter. Studies like the coloured pencil drawing on paper displayed here, also helped Hockney resolve the finished painting.

Water Made of Lines and Crayon

‘Lithographic Water Made of Lines and Crayon’, 1978

Lithographic Water Made of Lines, Crayon and Two Blue Washes Without Green Wash 1978-80 by David Hockney born 1937

‘Lithographic Water Made Of Lines Crayon and Two Blue Washes Without Green Wash’, 1978

Hockney explored the swimming pool motif intensively in his work during his time in California in the sixties. Returning to America in 1978, the visual possibilities of the subject still fascinated him. This lithographic print of Water Made Of Lines Crayon and Two Blue Washes Without Green Wash is one of a series in which Hockney experimented with the same image, but added different washes, colours, tones and stylised squiggles to capture shifting colours, depth and reflections in the water. These variations were mirrored in the detailed titles of the individual prints, which were produced in New York by the American printmaker and publisher Kenneth Tyler. The pool was Tyler’s.

Man in Shower in Beverly Hills, 1964

‘Man in Shower in Beverly Hills’, 1964

Then there were the showers.  Arriving in America in the early sixties from an England where such things were barely dreamed of, Hockney marvelled at the showers, and at the American fondness for them. Man in Shower in Beverly Hills, painted in 1964 in acrylic, explores the artistic possibilities of moving water, shower curtains and glass doors – all of which excited him. He was inspired to update a traditional artistic theme – the bather – saying:

For an artist the interest in showers is obvious: the whole body is always in view and in movement, usually gracefully, as the bather is caressing his own body.

In this painting, the figure and tiles were based on a voyeuristic photograph he bought from the homoerotic Physique Pictorial magazine. Hockney called the painting ‘conceptual’. In it he experiments with pattern, the illusion of surfaces and falling water, and composition. Some challenges were unresolved – he struggled to paint the man’s feet and bent the plant to cover them.

David Hockney, Portrait Surrounded by Artistic Devices, 1965

‘Portrait Surrounded by Artistic Devices’, 1965

Familiar Faces

The final section of the Walker’s exhibition presents a snapshot of one of Hockney’s greatest achievements – portraiture.  Portraits in painting and drawing have always been central to David Hockney’s artistic output and the Arts Council Collection contains a broad range of portraits acquired in the 1960s and 1970s. These demonstrate Hockney’s insight into the characters and lives of his subjects alongside his evolving skills as an artist.  The Collection includes Portrait Surrounded by Artistic Devices, considered one of Hockney’s most complex portrait paintings.

As a young artist in the sixties, Hockney worried that his work was not sufficiently ‘contemporary’. Discussing his early years, he once said: ‘I have never thought my painting advanced, but in 1964 I still consciously wanted to be involved, if only peripherally, with modernism.’ So, briefly, in the mid-1960s, he experimented with ideas about modern painting and these issues are the focus of this painting of his father. Kenneth Hockney is seated amidst ‘artistic devices’- his son’s visual exploration of the way artists create images in two dimensions. Around his father’s portrait, Hockney plays with colour, shape, picture depth and geometry, responding to Cezanne’s innovatory suggestion that all nature could be reduced to cylinders, spheres and cones.

David Hockney, Gregory, 1974

‘Gregory’, 1974

Hockney has always preferred to make portraits of people he knows, and the group on display includes an informal image of Gregory Evans, a companion and model of Hockney’s from the 1970s. Schlesinger had left him in 1971 and by 1974 Hockney had taken up with the younger man. He was hung-over after a night out in London when Hockney drew this portrait.

There are also revealing preparatory studies for some of his famous large-scale double portraits, such as that of Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy. Hockney’s California lifestyle is also never far from the surface, including his encounter with the art collectors Fred and Marcia Weisman.

David Hockney, California Seascape, 1968

‘California Seascape’, 1968,watercolour and pencil

Tucked away in a corner of this last section is an exquisite watercolour that is not a portrait. On Hockney’s return to California from England in 1968 he worked on three big pictures. One of these was California Seascape,for which this is a study.  It depicts the view through the window of the home of fellow artist Dick Smith, who lived in Corona del Mar on the Pacific coast.  The picture was Smith’s suggestion. Hockney was pleased with his studies and the unusual ‘picture within a picture’ composition in which the interior is of equal importance to the exterior. The finished painting is in a slick realist style in contrast to the fluid watercolour.

Introduction to the exhibition

This is an excellent introduction by Head of Fine Art at the Walker, Ann Bukantas, to the exhibition which formed part of the 2014 Homotopia Festival.

See also

Radical Figures: the reinvention of figurative art in post-war Britain

Girls Head in Profile with Cap on, 1963-64

Euan Uglow, Girl’s Head in Profile with Cap On, 1963-64

The other day I spent an absorbing afternoon in Manchester Art Gallery, looking at Grayson Perry’s wonderful tapestries (The Vanity of Small Differences) and an exhibition curated by Jeremy Deller, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air in which he takes a personal look at the impact of the Industrial Revolution on British popular culture, and its persisting influence on our lives today.

But first, I spent some time viewing Radical Figures, a display that explores the pioneering role that painters such as Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud and David Hockney played in the reinvention of figurative art in Britain in the post-war decades.

Francis Bacon, Portrait of Lucian Freud, 1951

Francis Bacon, Portrait of Lucian Freud, 1951

This was a period in which radical work in British art tended to be influenced by the modern art of  New York – especially abstraction and Pop Art.  But alongside such boundary-breaking painting, there was another current in art pioneered by a group of loosely associated artists who later were labelled The School of London.

These artists shared a firm belief that they could find new ways to create realist paintings and reinvent the representation of the human figure to make it relevant in the modern world. These figurative painters studied the art of the Renaissance and of Impressionism, whilst their work also had origins in pre-War British art: in the painting of Walter Sickert, David Bomberg and the realists of the Euston Road School.

By the 1970s and 1980s the work of these artists had begun to be recognised as amongst the most important British art of its time. This undeclared group included Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, Michael Andrews, Euan Uglow and the more Pop Art-associated David Hockney. As the introduction to the display puts it:

Between them they found new ways of looking intensely at the world around them; to combine in paint what they saw, with what they felt.

Head VI. Francis Bacon (1948)

Francis Bacon, Head VI, 1948

I’m no fan of Francis Bacon, but there are two arresting works here that I appreciated. There is, without doubt, intensity and feeling in Head VI, painted in 1948. It is, quite simply, a painting of a scream.

Bacon and Lucian Freud were close friends, and in 1951 Freud was invited to sit for his first portrait by Bacon. This in its itself was unusual, as Bacon usually preferred working from secondary media, such as photographs.  In fact, Freud quickly discovered this to be the case. When he returned to Bacon’s studio for a second sitting, he found that in his absence the portrait had changed completely since he had last seen it. Bacon had continued, working from memory and, at the same time, incorporating elements from a photo of Kafka leaning against a pillar which Freud noticed among the debris littering the floor of Bacon’s studio.

The 1951 portrait was one of several that Bacon made of Freud over the next decade.  Freud returned the compliment, but only made two portraits of Bacon.  The first (below) was made in 1952 and, although it looks like an etching, is actually oil paint on metal. Bought by the Tate, the painting disappeared in 1988 while on loan to a gallery in Berlin.  Freud painted another portrait in 1956-57 that, as with the earlier portrait, shows Bacon with a downward gaze. Bacon sat knee-to-knee with Freud while he worked on the portraits, and during the three months of sittings for the first work, he is said to have ‘grumbled but sat consistently’.

Francis Bacon 1952 by Lucian Freud

Francis Bacon, 1952 by Lucian Freud

There is a wonderful portrait by Lucian Freud in the exhibition – Girl with Beret, made in 1951-2.  It’s from the early period of his portraiture that is distinguished by fine brushwork and the jewel-like intensity of paintings from the Northern Renaissance which Freud studied intently in the National Gallery at this time.  Freud’s portraits usually involved over 150 hours of sitting – and some have suggested it is this which gives the sitter here such a haunted appearance.  The critic John Russell described Freud’s technique as ‘a particular kind of scrutiny which involves a long, slow stalking of the thing seen’.

Girl with Beret, Lucian Freud, 1951-2

Lucian Freud, Girl with Beret, 1951-2

Frank Auerbach – who is represented here by the urban landscape, Euston Steps and a portrait of his lover, E.O.W (Stella West) – had been taught by David Bomberg, whose influence led Auerbach to execute his work in hugely thick paint (impasto).

Frank Auerbach, Euston Steps, 1980-81

Frank Auerbach, Euston Steps, 1980-81

The portrait of E.O.W. led the critic David Sylvester to remark in 1956: ‘In this clotted heap of muck there has somehow been preserved the precious fluidity and the pliancy proper to paint’.

Frank Auerbach, Head of E.O.W, charcoal on paper, 1956

Frank Auerbach, Head of E.O.W, charcoal on paper, 1956

Euan Uglow is represented here by two paintings – Girl’s Head in Profile with Cap On (top) and The Quarry,  Pignano (1979), a nude that Catherine Lampert has described as ‘a masterpiece that circumvents the question of the relationship between artist and model’.  The explanation for the curious title is that, longing to be abroad in the summer of 1979, Uglow remembered a steep-walled quarry near Pignano outside Volterra.  He created an artificial recess that meant the model’s face was hidden from view.


Euan Uglow, The Quarry,  Pignano, 1979

Uglow’s intention was that the eyes of the viewer could wander over the woman’s forms just as a local person might stare at the boulders in the quarry.  ‘I didn’t want that psychological thing of somebody trying to look to see what kind of person it was – you are supposed to be able to roam over these hills, the green is supposed to be the trees, the blue is supposed to be sky, glittering through the trees.’

Four People Sunbathing, 1955, Michael Andrews

Michael Andrews, Four People Sunbathing, 1955

Michael Andrews spent three years studying at the Slade School of Art in London in the 1940s, where his contemporaries included Craigie Aitchison, Paula Rego and Euan Uglow.  He quickly gained a reputation as one of the most promising painters of his generation. I can’t remember where I saw it (probably at Tate Modern), but A Man Who Suddenly Fell Over, 1952 (not in this display) is a painting I have relished: it reveals the artist’s fascination with human behaviour and is typical of paintings by him which show individuals struggling to maintain their composure in trying situations: overdressed and out of place on the beach, or falling down in the street.

A Man who Suddenly Fell Over 1952 by Michael Andrews

Michael Andrews, A Man Who Suddenly Fell Over, 1952

Certainly, the figures in Four People Sunbathing, unclothed or in swimming trunks, appear awkward and ill at ease, pale townies not really enjoying the afternoon in the open air. In the dazzling light there’s an oppressive feeling on this summer afternoon which seems to have paralysed all activity.

David Hockney, Peter C, 1961

While at the Royal College of Art in the early 1960s, David Hockney had an requited crush on Peter Crutch, a fellow student. Such feelings could not be openly admitted in the context of the law and social climate of the time. Hockney has painted Peter wearing fashionable drainpipe trousers and a skinny tie. The full length portrait is painted in a child-like style with an oversized head and long, thin legs, one leg unfinished. Peter has a red heart on his jacket and the background is plain with the inscription: ‘PETER C’ in the top right-hand corner. In block capitals, the words ‘my friend’ can be seen beneath his hand, with ‘PETER’ repeated in the bottom left-hand corner. The words ‘who is the m’ trail off the right-hand side of the canvas. The piece is a tall narrow work consisting of two canvases joined together.

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Tracing the Century: arbitrary and puzzling, but with gems

Tracing the Century: arbitrary and puzzling, but with gems
Henry Moore, Pink and Green Sleepers, 1941
Henry Moore, Pink and Green Sleepers, 1941

Just before it closed, I went along to see Tracing the Century: Drawing as a Catalyst for Change at Tate Liverpool, an exhibition which aims to highlight the fundamental role of drawing as a vehicle for change in modern and contemporary artFor the average art-lover it’s a deeply puzzling assembly, not only of sketches and drawings but also paintings, sculpture and film; moreover, the curators have jarringly juxtaposed radically different artists from different perspectives and periods.

So we find Cezanne sharing a wall with Klee and Richard Hamilton.  Henry Moore’s brilliant London blitz drawings are paired for some reason that escapes me with contemporary artist Matthew Monahan, while a Moore sculpture shares a space with works by Francis Bacon, Jacob Beuys and Andy Warhol.  The poster advertising the exhibition features anatomical drawings by William Orpen that were really designed as teaching aids for art students, while the show gets its name from Jasper Johns’ ‘Tracing’, part of a series in which Johns literally traced art works by Cezanne and others  leading one art critic to write that, ‘any art student ought to know that a tracing of a painting isn’t a response or an interpretation’.

The exhibition got a fairly savage review in the Independent:
There seems to be a vogue among curators at the various Tates for trying to force connections between palpably unconnected works or genres. Maybe it’s a leftover from the whole Dream/Future/Multistorey Car Park thing at the pre-new-hang Tate Modern.  Anyway, it’s time to stop.  Like a provincial restaurant, Tracing the Century‘s menu talks the talk but doesn’t dish up the goods. It starts from the unsurprising premise that drawing was a catalyst for change in the art of the past 100 years, which is certainly true, although it was also true for the century before that and pretty well every century since the caves at Lascaux. […] Irritatingly, Tracing the Century manages to be both arbitrary and over-organised at the same time – rambling vaguely from room to room while stopping to suggest implausible connections between unlike artists.
However, this is a big show, bringing together around a hundred artworks from the Tate collection, so you’d expect there to be some good stuff.  I quickly decided to just focus on the works that spoke to me – and there were many – and forget about trying to grapple with the curators’ argument.
Paul Cézanne, Montagne Sainte-Victoire,1905-6
Paul Cézanne, Montagne Sainte-Victoire, 1905-6

One of the first treasures I encountered was this watercolour sketch by Cezanne of Montagne Sainte-Victoire, his favourite subject from the late 1880s until his death. Cezanne returned, day after day to sketch it from different viewpoints and in changing light conditions and this watercolour was painted from the hillside above his studio at Les Lauves just outside Aix-en-Provence. The Tate caption explains its significance:

In his landscapes, he abandoned traditional fixed-point perspective in an attempt to capture the natural movement of the eye as it roams across the vista. The viewer is led across the surface of his image through passages of carefully constructed brush-marks and subtle tones.  Emile Bernard visited Cézanne in 1904 and noted his unique approach to sketching in watercolours: ‘His method was strange, entirely different from the usual practices and of an extreme complexity. He began with the shadows and with a touch, which he covered with a second more extensive touch, then with a third, until all these tints, forming a mesh, both coloured and modelled the object.’

Paul Gauguin, Tahitians, 1891
Paul Gauguin, Tahitians, 1891

Paul Gauguin’s Tahitians is hard to date exactly owing to its unfinished state, but most probably it was made about 1891 during Gauguin’s first stay in Tahiti. In its unfinished state, though, it reveals a great deal about Gauguin’s working methods.   He began his work in Tahiti by making a number of studies in order to come to terms with his new subject-matter. Here he is sketching out his ideas, beginning with a crayon and charcoal drawing on paper, and adding in detail on the left in oil.  On 11 March 1892 Gauguin wrote to Daniel de Monfreid: ‘I work more and more but so far only studies or rather documents … If they aren’t of use to me later they will be useful to others.’

Woman Seated in the Underground 1941
Henry Moore, Woman Seated in the Underground, 1941

I’m not going to complain about an exhibition that brings to your home town three of the drawings made by Henry Moore of Londoners sheltering from the blitz in 1941 in Belsize Park underground station.  The three drawings here – Pink and Green Sleepers (top), Woman Seated in the Underground (above) and Tube Shelter Perspective (below) – began as rough drawings that Moore made in the shelter that he developed once he reached home, using a range of techniques: wax crayon, watercolour wash, pencil, inks.

Tube Shelter Perspective 1941
Henry Moore, Tube Shelter Perspective, 1941

Moore uses a variety of techniques in this series: allowing wax crayon to dispel water-based paints or inks; scratching into paint and crayon with sharp objects; smudging materials; using thick impasto and thin washes; alternating fine wispy lines with heavy contours. The effect is more sculptural in texture than traditional drawing. The rough surfaces and scratchy lines bear a strong resemblance to Moore’s sculptures of reclining figures or natural forms such as weather-worn stone.  Which perhaps explains why, as soon as you enter the next room, you are confronted with his 1938 Recumbent Figure from 1938, dominating the room.

Henry Moore - Recumbent Figure 1938

Henry Moore was 42 and teaching at Chelsea Polytechnic when the Second World War began. At first, his life carried on as normal, though he was unable to work on his sculptures due to a scarcity of materials. One evening, he was delayed on his journey home from London and came upon the scenes that would provide him with these poignant images. When he arrived at his underground station, Belsize Park, he was transfixed by the sight of the sleeping figures of Londoners sheltering on the platform and along the underground passages.  He immediately made a connection with his own art:

I had never seen so many reclining figures and even the holes out of which the trains were coming seemed to me like the holes in my sculpture… people who were obvious strangers to one another were forming intimate groups.

Moore returned several times to make discrete sketches so as to avoid intrusion on the sleepers’ privacy. The sheltering forms seemed to evoke associations between the sleepers and forms in the landscape, unconsciously supporting the wartime propaganda message that the British people were an indomitable force which would prevail against all hostilities.

Warhol, Boy with thumb in his mouth, 1956
Andy Warhol, Boy with Thumb in his Mouth, 1956

Andy Warhol may be better known for his pop art screen prints of Marilyn Monroe and his soup cans, but early in his artistic career, in the early 1950s, he produced some exquisite drawings that revealed him to be a skilled and sensitive draughtsman.  Two of these drawings are on display here – Boy with Thumb in his Mouth and Resting Boy, from 1955-56 – which employ a superb economy of line, with all unnecessary detail removed.  Warhol’s work revealed a fascination with the male body throughout his career, a fascination first evident in his early line drawings of young men from the mid to late 1950s, many of which were included in his ‘Drawings for a Boy Book’ exhibition at the Bodley Gallery, New York in 1956. The style of these drawings show similarities to the work of Henri Matisse and Jean Cocteau, both of whom employed a similar reductive linear drawing technique, and whose work Warhol admired.  There’s a delicacy and tenderness in these drawings that sets them apart from the rest of his wiork.

Warhol, Resting Boy, 1955
Andy Warhol, Resting Boy, 1955

Alongside these two drawings hangs a later one  – a portrait of David Hockney completed in 1974.  There’s a connection here, of course: Hockney played an important role in the British Pop Art movement, and he, too, is a master of the art of line drawing. The Warhol portrait is a pencil line drawing in which the features and textures of Hockney’s hair and shirt have been reduced to abstract lines and shapes. But it is less satisfying than the 1950s drawings, almost certainly being completed by the process of projecting a photograph on to a large sheet of paper, where Warhol would then draw around the areas of the image he wished to define. When the projector was switched off, the drawing remained.

Andy Warhol, David Hockney, 1974
Andy Warhol, David Hockney, 1974

Tucked away in a small side room is David Hockney’s portrait of his mother –  Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, Mrs Laura Hockney, Bradford 1972 – drawn in pen in one session, without revisions.  It’s a gem.

 David Hockney, Portrait of the Artist's Mother, Mrs Laura Hockney, Bradford 1972
David Hockney, Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, Mrs Laura Hockney, Bradford 1972

In this line drawing, Hockney’s mother, sitting in a wing chair, is revealed as frail-looking with a lined face. Wearing a simple dress with short sleeves and a round neck, the figure sits with her hands neatly folded on her lap and her legs crossed. The chair is positioned squarely within the frame but the figure sits upright against the chair’s right-hand corner, which gives a three-quarter view of the sitter. The face is worked with more detail than the rest of the image. The drawing is inscribed ‘Bradford, Aug 2nd, 1972’.  Laura Hockney was then 72 years old, but as her obituary in The Guardian noted, she lived to be 99 years old, ‘deceptively frail-looking during most of the artist’s years of fame, she attended receptions in a wheelchair surrounded by gossip and laughs’. She was subject of many of Hockney’s drawings, paintings and photo-collages, and had encouraged her son in his artistic ambitions when he was a schoolboy.

 Lucian Freud, Narcissus, 1948
Lucian Freud, Narcissus, 1948

Here’s another remarkable drawing: Lucian Freud’s Narcissus, from 1948.  The subject is the boy in classical mythology who fell in love with his own reflection and died of love for himself.  I think it might be a self portrait of the artist obsessed by the details of his own face reflected in the glass below him.  The drawing deploys a variety of techniques:  the texture of the thick woollen sweater is minutely detailed in lines and cross-hatching.  His hair is drawn with quick, flowing pen lines, while the details of his face are marked by pen stipple. The edge of the mirror is close to the subject’s chin, creating a stark division of figure and reflection.  The Tate caption adds: ‘The reflection is cropped above the eyes which, had they been included, would have been looking upwards at the viewer. Instead, the subject is rendered a double object, enclosed in a circularised, interior world.’

Pablo Picasso, Dora Maar Seated, 1938
Pablo Picasso, Dora Maar Seated, 1938

Dora Maar was a a stunningly beautiful, passionate and acutely intelligent young woman, a painter, photographer and reporter, who became Picasso’s lover in 1935, and remained so through the war years. She was one of his most important models during that period and, perhaps as important, a great influence on his art and politics.

Picasso and Dora Maar, photographed by Man Ray, 1937
Picasso and Dora Maar, photographed by Man Ray, 1937

Shortly after their first meeting, in the winter of 1935-36, Dora photographed Picasso in her Paris studio. Dora’s photography and the experimental techniques she employed were a source of inspiration to Picasso. He began to take photographs of her that were the catalyst for a whole series of works. Using photographs of Dora as a starting point, Picasso painted several portraits of Maar.  This preparatory sketch, using ink, gouache and oil paint,shows Dora with her hands crossed elegantly in her lap.

Grayson Perry - Aspects of Myself
Grayson Perry – Aspects of Myself

Centre piece in another room is Grayson Perry’s ceramic vase Aspects of Myself which I suppose is present here because the surface of the vase is inscribed with writing and drawings that reflect key moments in his life or which address issues of identity, class, sexuality and gender that are central to Perry’s identity and sharply satirical view of society and the art world. Aspects of Myself is an autobiographical work showing the artist in the guise of his transvestite alter-ego ‘Claire’.  In an interview with The Art Newspaper in February 2012, the interviewer observed, ‘Another unusual aspect of your work is that it incorporates a lot of content, narrative scenes and often writing’.  Grayson Perry responded:

Oh, you’ve got to have content; I think it’s cowardly to avoid content. I judged a competition the other day and among the 700 works the number of wishy-washy semi-abstract paintings I saw was incredible. It was as though they wanted to make art, but didn’t want to say anything. I hate the aimless, apparently transcendent thing in sub-Rothkos: “Oh, this is all about spirituality.” Fuck off. Why isn’t it about your mother-in-law or poverty or war?

What is your content about?

Things that have interested me all my life: religion, kinky sex, class, taste, folk art – stuff like that.

Paul Nash, Three Rooms, 1937
Paul Nash, Three Rooms, 1937

There are a couple of Paul Nash works in the exhibition; one of them is Three Rooms from 1937, a  pencil, crayon and watercolour sketch on paper. The work reflects Nash’s renewed commitment to the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936. It shows three interrelated rooms invaded by the sky, a forest and the sea. The air of strangeness and the combination of disparate elements is typical of much Surrealist painting and writing, but its mysterious symbolism also recalls the work of William Blake.

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The Meaning of Trees

The Meaning of Trees

Who would have thought that the dark grey shapes in a pack of dog biscuits are derived from willow ash, a product which aids digestion and reduces flatulence?  This was just one of the fascinating insights offered by Fiona Stafford, Professor of Literature at Somerville College Oxford, in a series of Radio 3 essays last week entitled ‘The Meaning of Trees’.

In her talks, Fiona Stafford explored the cultural, economic and social significance of five different trees – yew, ash, oak, willow and sycamore – outlining the symbolism and importance of each tree in the past and their changing fortunes and reputations.  She revealed how some trees are yielding significant new medical and the environmental benefits.

So, for example, in her first essay Stafford noted that the Yew has been labelled ‘the death tree’ because of its toxicity: every part of the tree is poisonous, and it bleeds a remarkably blood-red sap.  Yet today these ancient trees have the most modern of uses – as part of the fight against cancer.

Fortingall Yew

Yews are renowned for their astonishing longevity, and are most often associated with churchyards.  Yet, as Stafford pointed out, many ancient yews pre-date the churchyards where they stand.  They mark ancient, sacred sites on which Christianity, as the new religion, built. Yews continued to be planted in churchyards where their toxic leaves would not endanger grazing livestock.

The Fortingall Yew in Perthshire (above) is Europe’s oldest tree at over 3,000 years old, and was already a veteran when the Romans arrived. Stafford spoke of how the astonishing longevity of the yew and its evergreen branches have suggested comforting thoughts of everlasting life to mourners in churchyards, while the dark, dense boughs offer privacy and stillness.

A distinctive feature of yews is that they don’t conform to any standard, but evolve into many diverse shapes and forms.  They were tamed and trimmed in Renaissance mazes and parterres, and over the centuries some have grown into fantastical forms, as we saw for ourselves some years back  at Powis castle in Wales, where the terrace is bounded by a 30 foot yew hedge and huge strange shaped ‘tumps’ formed over the centuries by the annual round of clipping and shaping. (below).


But, said Fiona Stafford, the yew also gained a reputation as ‘the death tree’, due to its toxicity – every part of the tree is poisonous.  Shakespeare described the tree as ‘double fatal’ – its boughs poisonous, while arrows crafted from yew also brought death.  The yew, that bleeds red with remarkably blood-red sap if its bark is cut, has triggered deep fears: yews are there in ghost stories and gothic horror and loom through the gathering darkness of Gray’s Elegy.  In Tennyson’s In Memoriam, the yew is both resented for still being alive when his friend is dead, but also celebrated for its longevity:

Old Yew, which graspest at the stones
That name the under-lying dead,
Thy fibres net the dreamless head,
Thy roots are wrapt about the bones.
The seasons bring the flower again,
And bring the firstling to the flock;
And in the dusk of thee, the clock
Beats out the little lives of men.
O not for thee the glow, the bloom,
Who changest not in any gale,
Nor branding summer suns avail
To touch thy thousand years of gloom:

And gazing on thee, sullen tree,
Sick for thy stubborn hardihood,
I seem to fail from out my blood
And grow incorporate into thee.

With its blood-red berries and leaves resistant to winter’s trials, yews were a symbol of everlasting life, the oldest living things in Europe.  The longevity of the yew was illustrated by Fiona Stafford when she told how, at Fountains Abbey in the 12th century, the yews were already so large that the monks could live in them while the abbey was being built. Some living yews are older than Stonehenge or the pyramids.  Trees that were seedlings 3000 years ago were already vast by time Romans arrived.

The idea of the yew symbolizing everlasting life might now be reinforced, Stafford argued, by the tree’s new role in the fight against cancer.  In the 1960s, scientists discovered that taxol, derived from the bark of the yew, could be used in chemotherapy. A newer formulation is now used to treat patients with lung, ovarian, breast and other forms of cancer.

But there’s a downside for the tree: stripping bark from the trees kills them, and as a consequence the Himalayan Yew is now an endangered species.  Careful harvesting of yew needles would produce the same benefits and be more sustainable but, being slower, yield lower profits.  ‘The impulse to fell’, Stafford concluded, ‘has a humane as well as a profit dimension’.  This is not the first time that human exploitation has threatened the yew: Stafford described the medieval decimation of the European yew for arrows.

But, Stafford concluded, it is not the yew’s dark façade or poisonous needles but its very long life that is troubling: the tree will survive into a future when we’ve all been forgotten.  If all that’s left of the people who planted some of our more venerable trees are their broken beakers, she queried, what will remain of those in today’s garden centres trundling their potted yews to the checkout?  Their purchase may be their most long-lasting legacy.

Although we don’t yet know what else the yew has hidden away, one day we might. What is the meaning of the yew?  Stafford concluded: it’s much too early to say.

David Hockney- Woldgate lane to Burton Agnes, 2007

In her second essay, Fiona Stafford tackled the tree which has suddenly hit the headlines. The Ash is now threatened by the arrival in Britain of the fungus called Chalara fraxinea which causes ash dieback. But, said Stafford, the Ash has survived since the birth of humanity and has met mortal threats before.  Despite many different near fatal epidemics over the centuries, delicate ash trees have survived for millennia.

As evidence of the significance of the Ash in our culture and for the British landscape, Stafford cited David Hockney’s recent Royal Academy show in which ash trees peopled the fields of the Yorkshire Wolds (above) – a return, she said, to the great tradition of British landscape painting.  [For a discussion of the prospects for the trees painted by Hockney, see Will Ash Dieback affect Woldgate Hockney Trees?]

Stafford cited John Constable as an example of another English painter in love with the graceful form of the ash.  The tree figures in paintings such as Cornfield and Flatford Mill, and in drawings which Constable made of a favourite ash on Hampstead Heath (below).

In the summer of 1823 Constable rented a house in Hampstead. He admired trees and made many studies of them, always noting their specific shapes and varying foliage. In this drawing – Study of an ash tree – inscribed and dated ‘Hampstead June 21 1823. longest day. 9 o clock eveninghe defined the particularities of an ash tree at a given moment and at a specific location, combining intense feeling for the tree with accurate observation of the tree trunk, branches and leaves, as well as capturing the air between the leaves and the wind passing through.

John CONSTABLE Study of an ash tree

Stafford told how Constable described the tree as having died of a broken heart after a notice warning against vagrancy was nailed unceremoniously to the trunk.  ‘The tree seemed to have felt the disgrace’, he lamented, for almost at once some of its top branches withered, and within a year or so when the entire tree became paralysed, and ‘the beautiful creature was cut down to a stump’.  His friend and biographer C.R. Leslie wrote of Constable’s love of trees, and of the ash in particular:

I have seen him admire a fine tree with an ecstasy of delight like that with which he would catch up a beautiful child in his arms.  The ash was his favourite, and all who are acquainted with his pictures cannot fail to have observed how frequently it is introduced as a near object, and how beautifully its distinguishing peculiarities are marked.

It was a favourite tree, too, of Edward Thomas. In Ash Grove, written in 1916, war has concentrated his mind on a vision of England, at ‘a moment’, in Stafford’s words, ‘when the past, unwilling to die, floods the present with joyful sunlight, and an ordinary clump of trees becomes magnified into something extraordinary’.  Thomas also evokes his Welsh ancestry in the poem’s recollection of a girl singing the old Welsh folk song ‘The Ash Grove’:

Half of the grove stood dead, and those that yet lived made
Little more than the dead ones made of shade.
If they led to a house, long before they had seen its fall:
But they welcomed me; I was glad without cause and delayed.

Scarce a hundred paces under the trees was the interval –
Paces each sweeter than the sweetest miles – but nothing at all,
Not even the spirits of memory and fear with restless wing,
Could climb down in to molest me over the wall

That I passed through at either end without noticing.
And now an ash grove far from those hills can bring
The same tranquillity in which I wander a ghost
With a ghostly gladness, as if I heard a girl sing

The song of the Ash Grove soft as love uncrossed,
And then in a crowd or in distance it were lost,
But the moment unveiled something unwilling to die
And I had what I most desired, without search or desert or cost.

Stafford discussed the many cultural associations of the ash, including its health benefits.  Pliny noted that its leaves were considered an effective antidote to snake bites, while later generations valued the ash as a cure for  obesity and gout, and its bark a tonic for arthritis, while warts could be eradicated by a prick from a pin that had been inserted into the bark.

The ash was an integral part of life, giving its name to innumerable places, and wherever people lived and worked the ash tree was a constant companion.  Its reputation as a friend to man rested not only on its physical beauty or medicinal value, but also the versatility of ash wood.  Its toughness and elasticity lent itself to the manufacture of wagon wheels, skis, walking sticks, bentwood chairs, as well as cricket stumps and billiard cues.  Stafford told how, during the Second World War, when metal was scarce, ash was used in construction of the de Havilland Mosquito, a wooden bomber.  Ash was also the wood used for the Morris Traveller wood frame, and is still used today in the construction of Morgan sports cars.

Given the ubiquity of the tree, it was not surprising, Stafford suggested, that the ancient people of northern Europe thought the entire world depended on the ash.  In Nordic myth, even human beings were thought to derive from piece of ash driftwood the Norse gods found on the shore.  Ask was the first human, created by the gods from that piece of ash; in Old Norse askr means ‘ash tree’.

Our history with the ash is long. In Norse mythology, the World Tree Yggdrasil was an ash tree, with two wells feeding its roots – wisdom and destiny.  Stafford told how Norse mythology also ‘foresaw the end of the known world when Yggdrassil would shake and crack, the land would be engulfed by ocean, and the old gods overthrown. They knew that the great ash tree would not last forever.’ But, asked Stafford, can we protect the ash now that it fights off a new threat to its existence?

She pointed out that ashes not renowned for their longevity, living only a couple of hundred years at most.  But coppiced they will continue to send up shoots from the dead heartwood, and their abundant seeds – or keys – also lead to rapid propagation.  The ash is tolerant of almost any soil, and – until now – has been one of most familiar trees in Britain.  It is hard to imagine an ash-less Britain, but, with Chalara fraxinea now alarmingly set on sweeping through British Isles, Stafford concluded, ‘the future of the ash tree is far less assured than its past’.

Allerton Oak

Fiona Stafford began her essay on the Oak in that most English of locations – the bar of the Royal Oak.  Here, in a pub bearing  the third most popular pub name in England, you are likely to be surrounded by oak – the bar and tables made of oak, and the beer’s flavour and colour deepened in oak barrels. Oak, she said, is  such an integral part of our culture we scarcely notice it.

Sturdy, stalwart, stubborn: the oak is a symbol of enduring strength that has inspired poets, composers and writers for millennia. But not just in England.  The oak has been chosen as the national tree of many other countries, too, including Estonia, France, Germany, Moldova, Romania, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the United States, and Wales.

Civilisations have been built from oak, as its hard wood has been felled for houses, halls and cities, its timber turned into trading ships and navies. Other woods are as strong, but few are as long-lasting as oak.  Some oak trees, observed Stafford, served as ale houses, some were gospel oaks under which parishioners gathered to hear readings from the Bible.  She might have added that the spreading branches of others served as shelter for local council meetings – such as the Allerton Oak (above) in Liverpool’s Calderstones Park, now over a thousand years old, beneath which the sittings of the local ‘Hundred court’ were held.

When war threatened, oak proved crucial for national defence, oak wood being unique for its hardness and toughness and thus ideal for shipbuilding.  But the oak’s value also led to its decimation since a large naval vessal required some 2000 oaks, and replanting was a slow affair, with replacement trees only reaching maturity after two or three hundred years.

In one of the most fascinating parts of her talk, Fiona Stafford explained that the English are not alone in identifying the oak as a symbolic tree.  The oak is the emblem of Derry in Northern Ireland, originally known in Gaelic as Doire, meaning oak.  The Irish County Kildare derives its name from the town of Kildare which originally in Irish was Cill Dara meaning the Church of the Oak.  The oak is a national symbol for the people of the Basque Country, as well as being used as a symbol by a number of political parties, including the Conservative Party.  As Stafford observed:

The outspread arms of the oak offered a congenial symbol and make the complicated story of its political exploitation a telling example of how different notions of nationhood  can be cultivated, felled, or replanted.  If the same tree can inspire both conservative admiration for inheritance and radical enthusiasm for equal rights, as well as unionist pride in inclusiveness and separatist determination for independence, it’s difficult to be too absolute about what the oak’s real meaning might be.

Major Oak

Sacred to the Celts and the Ancient Greeks, the oak tree has been central in British culture, present in place-names and national songs; yet it is also the national tree of dozens of countries.  It was once the most common European tree, but then the huge demand for oak timber led to a steep decline. Commenting on the famous Major Oak of Sherwood Forest (above), Stafford wondered:

‘Is the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest, its collapsing branches so carefully cradled by poles and wires, a heartening image of a caring community, or does it provoke less cheering ideas of a people clinging to memories of a great, but increasingly vanishing past?’

But then, she concluded, perhaps the impulse to interpret trees as anything but trees is one to handle with care.

Cutting osiers

The poor soul sat singing by a sycamore tree.
Sing all a green willow:
Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee,
Sing willow, willow, willow:
The fresh streams ran by her, and murmur’d her moans;
Sing willow, willow, willow
– Othello,
Act IV, Scene 3

Fiona Stafford began her essay on the Willow by observing that for poets and dramatists it has long been the tree of loss, abandoned lovers, and broken hearts. Shakespeare had Desdemona singing her willow song on the last night of her life and Ophelia sinking into the brook by the willow:

There is a willow grows askant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come: [….]
There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook.

Something about this tree, it seems, makes everyone want to weep – but the problem, as Stafford pointed out, is that many such references to the willow in folk songs (and in Shakespeare) pre-date the arrival of the Weeping Willow in Britain in the 18th century.  It’s claimed that the Weeping Willow was first introduced by the poet Alexander Pope who received a basket of figs from Smyrna in Turkey. Noticing that one of the twigs making up the basket was still alive, he planted it in his garden in Twickenham where it grew into the willow tree from which, it’s claimed, all others have been propagated.  By early 19th century the Weeping Willow was widely recognised, not least due to the willow pattern pottery designed by ceramics artist Thomas Minton (who also invented the legend which the design illustrates).

So Shakespeare’s willow, and the willow of old folk songs, must have belonged to one of the many indigenous varieties – white willow, crack willow, bay willow, etc, etc.  The easiest of trees to propagate, the pliable branches of the quick-growing willow have been used for basket-weaving, wicker-work, cradle-making, thatching or fencing. Osiers, the shrubby willows (above), are the best for basket-making, with stems so strong and pliable that they can be woven into wickerwork without snapping.

Willow Man

A dramatic symbol of the past importance of the willow for local economies is, as Fiona Stafford noted, Serena Delahaye’s giant willow man (above), a prominent landmark beside the M5 northbound between junction 24 and 23, near Bridgwater in Somerset. The sculpture stands 40 feet high and is made of locally grown black maul willow, woven around a steel skeletal frame.  The current figure is the second on the site. The original was destroyed by fire in 2001.  We have seen it from a speeding car on our way to Cornwall: a celebration of the traditional local industry of the Somerset Levels.  Fiona Stafford offered a reminder that in Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees, Roger Deakin devoted a chapter to the willow growers of the Somerset Levels.

The willow’s fortunes have fluctuated over the centuries, according to the practical needs of the time.  In times of war its lightness and flexibility meant that it was used to make artificial limbs, while willow charcoal was used to make gunpowder. Doctors also used the charcoal for dressing wounds, and willow was used as a remedy for fever and rheumatism. Pain relief derived from the willow’s salicylic acid, which yielded aspirin.  Eventually this led to the development of salacin, an anti-inflammatory agent that is produced from willow bark and which is closely related in chemical composition to aspirin.  Willow charcoal is not only the best for sketching, but has also been used to manufacture medicinal biscuits aimed at aiding digestion – thus the grey dog biscuits mentioned at the start.

The willow’s flammability (which led to its use in making gunpowder) mean that it is now being developed for biomass.  In Scandinavia, willow wood chip is already replacing oil as a cleaner fuel for domestic heating, as well as for industrial purposes. Willows offer a reliable, carbon-neutral source of heat – they grow so fast, absorbing carbon dioxide, that they can be harvested very frequently, producing cheap and easily-renewable supplies of fuel. Willow-fuelled power stations being planned.  Willows could also form part of an effective defence against flooding, with the long roots thriving in moist soil and helping to stabilise river banks.

So, synonymous with Englishness, having furnished the raw material for cricket bats since the 1780s (when a new variety of white willow was identified in Suffolk, providing an especially resilient, wide-grained wood) the willow is now at the cutting edge of medicinal and biomass development.

Fiona Stafford finished her survey of the willow’s meaning, by noting that when Claude Monet was trying to achieve ‘the ideal of an endless whole, unlimited by shores and horizons’, he turned again and again to the lily pond at Giverny.  ‘It was’, said Stafford,  ‘as if he could paint with plants, filling the pool with water lilies, surrounding it with weeping willows.  In the paintings, planes and surfaces dissolve as the multi-petalled flowers float on reflections of trees, and the vertical fronds of the willows make waves more visible than water’.

‘Monet’s willows’, concluded Stafford, ‘are perhaps the ultimate image of the ever-shifting willow: a tree so adaptable that it can be taken for water, sky, earth or sun.  And what might the willow be saying?  So much depends on the circumstances’.

In massy foliage of a sunny green
The splendid sycamore adorns the spring,
Adding rich beauties to the varied scene,
That Nature’s breathing arts alone can bring.
Hark! how the insects hum around, and sing,
Like happy Ariels, hid from heedless view­—
And merry bees, that feed, with eager wing,
On the broad leaves, glazed o’er with honey dew.
The fairy Sunshine gently flickers through
Upon the grass, and buttercups below;
And in the foliage Winds their sports renew,
Waving a shade romantic to and fro,
That o’er the mind in sweet disorder flings
A flitting dream of Beauty’s fading things.
John Clare, ‘The Sycamore’

There’s a tall sycamore that stands in a neighbouring garden and in summer, from mid-afternoon, casts our lawn and patio into deep shade.  It has annoyed me through the thirty-odd years that we lived here, and I have longed for it to be cut down.

In her final essay, Fiona Stafford challenged the popular image of the Sycamore as an unwanted, problematic weed, the cause of ‘the wrong kind of leaves on the line’ that disrupt British railways each year; the tree with too many leaves, too much sap, and too many seedlings.

Instead, Stafford focussed on the benefits of the sycamore.  As John Clare observed in his poem, with its dense foliage and sweet sap the tree is a haven for insects and sipping bees.  Clare, said Stafford, was ahead of his time in understanding this.  The sycamore is now valued, too, as a haven for all kinds of birds.

Sycamores annoy because of their resilience.  Sycamore seeds, with their propellers, spread far and wide on the wind and take root anywhere. They are hardy trees, loved by urban councils for their resistance to salt and tolerance of the pollution and harsh environment of city streets.  Consequently, the sycamore has become the most common tree in British cities.

In Britain, as Stafford noted, attitudes to the sycamore have always been ambivalent. Already, in 1664, John Evelyn was asserting that the sycamore should be banished from gardens and avenues because of its reputation for shade, and the honeydew-coated leaves which, after their fall, ‘turn to a mucilage … and putrefie with the first moisture of the season [and so] contaminate and marr our Walks’.  Many continue to hold such views, and see it as a weed which should be eradicated. As Richard Mabey observes in his magnificent book Weeds:

The mythology stacked against it is formidable.  It’s a true weed, invasive and loutish.  Its myriad seedlings swamp the ground and out-compete native trees.  Its large and ungainly leaves litter the earth, then slowly rot to a slithery mulch.  They are ‘the wrong sort of leaves’ that famously cause trains to skid to a halt every autumn.

But as both Stafford and Mabey observe, though widely regarded as a non-native species, the sycamore was introduced to Britain in Tudor times while, ironically, more recent arrivals, such as 19th century exotic imports, have been highly prized.

Yet, for Stafford, there is ‘something inspirational about the ordinariness of the sycamore’.  Seen as an ordinary tree, the sycamore has never been valued for its rich timber, even though its wood is as strong as oak, and more easily dyed. The sycamore, she suggested, stands for extraordinary possibilities latent in the commonplace.  A familiar feature of almost every rural area, their thick foliage offers shade to sheep and cattle, shelter to solitary farmhouses, and has inspired poets as varied as John Clare and W B Yeats.  In Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth expressed his profound delight in the prospect of the Wye valley seen from beneath a ‘dark sycamore’,  referring to its sun-blocker foliage.

Stafford finished by recalling that the oldest sycamore in England is probably the Tolpuddle tree, beneath which gathered, in 1834, the Dorset agricultural labourers who became pioneers of the trade union movement.  Barred from church halls or other indoor spaces, they gathered beneath the sycamore to stand up for their rights and resist their long hours and low wages.

Tolpuddle sycamore

The Tolpuddle sycamore

Man with a Blue Scarf: conversation, silence and time

Man with a Blue Scarf: conversation, silence and time

I’ve been reading Martin Gayford’s account of having his portrait painted by Lucian Freud – Man with a Blue Scarf.  Gayford – whose previous book, A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney I described in an earlier post as one of the best books on art that I have read – has done it again, this time telling of the 40 times he sat for Lucian Freud between November 2003 and July 2004. The result was the portrait ‘Man with a Blue Scarf’ that I saw earlier this year when it was included in Lucian Freud: Portraits, the major retrospective of Freud’s life’s work as a portraitist.

For the lay reader, Gayford has an easy, accessible style, free from the obfuscations of much art world discourse.  Naturally, Gayford is interested in Freud’s method of tackling a portrait (which is highly unusual) and in what it feels like to sit for a portrait over an extended period of time.  But, like the Hockney book, this becomes a sustained reflection on the art of painting by both artist and interlocutor, a record of their conversations and the writer’s inner thought.  The book provides a unique and fascinating insight into the working habits of a great painter of the human form in all its boundless variety.

Gayford, an art critic and writer, had known Freud for several years when one afternoon, over a cup of tea, he tentatively suggested that Freud might like to paint him:

After years of writing, talking and thinking about art, I was attracted by the prospect of watching a painting grow; being on the inside of the process. Even so, when I made that modest proposal, I didn’t really expect LF to accept. Probably, I thought he would say something politely noncommittal along the lines of, ‘That’s a nice idea, perhaps one day.’ Instead, he responded by saying, ‘Could you manage an evening next week?’

This was how it began: the intense experience – ‘somewhere between transcendental meditation and a visit to the barber’s’ – of turning up at Freud’s studio, posing for several hours, and going out for a meal afterwards (one of the rituals of sitting for Freud was to be taken for a meal). What follows is a kind of journal, each entry dated, of the sessions in which the portrait grew.

There are observations of Freud’s painting technique, about what it’s like to sit for a portrait and worry whether it will turn out looking like you too much or too little – and whether Freud might decide (as he sometimes did) that the painting is going nowhere and abandon it.  What makes the book so interesting and worthwhile is that, although there were periods of silent intensity, for much of the time conversation flourished and we learn a great deal about Freud’s likes and dislikes in art (‘the awful Mona Lisa‘; Gabriel Rossetti ‘the nearest painting can get to bad breath’) and exchanges of opinion between Freud and Gayford about writers and painters.

Their conversation embraces reminiscences about the rich variety of people Freud had known: from Greta Garbo to Auden and Picasso, the Kray twins (and their even more terrifying associate Eddie the Killer who committed entirely motiveless murders: Freud thought about painting him, but decided against it after Eddie said to him, ‘You’re a strange bloke, Lu.  You never tell me where you live’).  There are plenty more entertaining anecdotes, like the one about Freud having to step in when Francis Bacon drunkenly heckled Princess Margaret while she sang, accompanied on piano by Noël Coward.

This is the first entry in Gayford’s journal, dated 28 November 2003, 6.30 pm:

Lucian Freud indicates a low leather chair and I sit down.  “Does that pose seem reasonably natural?” he asks, “I try to impose my ideas on my sitters as little as possible”. It’s a cold late autumn day and, I am wearing a tweed jacket and a royal blue scarf. Perhaps, I suggest I could keep the scarf on for the picture.

LF agrees, but on certain points it soon turns out his will is law. I had thought that perhaps I could read while sitting, and had brought a book along with me, but no. “I don’t think I’m going to allow you to do that. I already see other possibilities.” He must have registered them almost instantly.

At this point LF makes chalk marks on the floor boards around the legs of the chair so that each time I come to the studio, we can replace it in precisely the same position with reference to the overhead light and his easel. Behind, he positions a battered black folding screen: the backdrop to my head.

Then he searches around for a suitably-sized canvas amongst the various ones leaning against the studio wall. The first he finds is discarded as it has a dent, which he says would sooner or later cause the paint to flake off. Then LF fishes another out of the corner and sets to work immediately, drawing in charcoal.

So it begins. This is how hour after hour will be spent, stretching for months into the future. Sitting in a pool of light in the dark studio, I start to muse and observe.

I have long been convinced that Freud is the real thing: a truly great painter living among us. When one afternoon over tea I – very tentatively – mentioned to him that if he wanted to paint me I would be able to find the time to sit, my motive was partly the standard one of portrait sitters: an assertion of my own existence. For various reasons, I was feeling rather down and being painted by Freud seemed a good way to push back against circumstances.

The other reason was a curiosity to see how it was done. After years of writing, talking and thinking about art, I was attracted by the prospect of watching a painting grow; being on the inside of the process. Even so, when I made that modest proposal, I didn’t really expect him to accept. Probably, I thought, Freud would say something politely non-committal on the lines of “That’s a nice idea, perhaps one day”. Instead, he responded by saying, “Could you manage an evening next week?”

I had known him for quite some time before that day, getting on for a decade. We had talked for many hours as friends, and as artist and critic. I had eaten innumerable meals in his company; together we had visited exhibitions and listened to jazz concerts. Dozens of times I had visited his studios, to look at recently finished pictures and work in progress. This, however, was different. This time, I was not looking at the picture, but being it – or at least its starting-point.

Gayford observes closely how Freud works: the way he has of seeming to dance as he works, muttering to himself, moving towards the application of a stroke of paint, and then pulling back like a horse rearing at his own looming shadow.   He notes how Freud doesn’t,begin the portrait with an outline of the face. He begins where he begins, almost randomly, with a little dab of detail on the canvas. Then, little by little, it widens out, but not in any predictable way. Gayford is fascinating by this modus operandi: it’s as if Freud is making it up as he goes along.

Freud has no clearer idea than Gayford whether the sittings will continue for weeks, months or a year. ‘Each painting,’ he says, ‘is an exploration into unknown territory’.  Gayford sometimes notices with alarm how his portrait seems to stand still, or even go backwards, while at other times it evolves quickly, changing in min­ute, subtle ways:

For several sittings the portrait has not seemed to change very much, although it has been constantly strengthening and adjusting.  At the end of the last session my mouth suddenly appeared, if only as a thin red line.  This was an indication that Lucian was ready to move down from the frontier – roughly across my face from my upper lip – at which work had halted a couple of weeks before, like an army held up in its advance.

Now , at last, things do move onwards.  My whole mouth appears and, to my surprise, seems almost to be smiling – a very unusual expression for a Freud sitter.  This image, as it gradually appears, is becoming a sort of alter ego.  It is also a revelation of how LF sees me, or to be more precise, what possibilities he sees in me to make a picture.

Gayford muses whether human identity can ever be fixed in a single image. In the end, his portrait  is a kind of synthesis of his myriad facial expressions, as well as – to his dismay – of more obvious signs of ageing, every muscular twitch or centimetre of sagging flesh scrutinised, remembered and re-created in paint by the sharp-eyed Freud.

Even in the short-term, painting is always a matter of memory.  LF looks very closely at me, making a measuring gesture, then he turns to the canvas and puts in a mark – or, just as possibly, stops at the last moment, reconsiders and observes   again.  Sometimes he wipes out what he has done with a piece of cotton wool or cloth. There is an interval, however short, between the observation and the act of painting, then another pause for consideration. During that time, the  original sight has been passed through LF’s eyes, nervous system and mind, then he has contemplated in relation to all  the other notations he has made. This process is repeated hundreds, indeed thousands, of times. Thus a painted image, certainly one by LF, is different in nature from an instantaneous image such as a photograph. David Hockney puts it like this: the painting of him by LF has over a hundred hours ‘layered into it’ and with them innumerable visual sensations and thoughts.

David and Eli (work in progress), 2003

I once devoted a post to Lucian Freud’s portraits of dogs, so I was interested to read about the discussions that took place between Gayford and Freud on the subject of animals. In one entry, Gayford observes:

LF has a conception of life that embraces the human and the animal as aspects of the same thing.  ‘When I’m painting people in clothes I’m always thinking very much of naked people, or animals dressed.’  Some of his most memorable pictures are of people and animals – generally their owners – together: Girl With a White Dog (1950-51), Guy and Speck (1980-81).  In Double Portrait (1985-6) paws and hands, whippet legs and forearms, doggy and female noses are juxtaposed in an intimate mesh, giving a powerful sense of shared existence.

While Freud was painting Gayford’s portrait, in another studio he was also working on a painting of his assistant David Dawson lying naked on a bed with his dog Eli.  They have several conversations about animals, and Gayford notes that, while Freud is extremely interested in animals, ‘it would not be quite accurate to call him an animal lover’.  It’s more a question of Freud having strong reactions to distinct animal personalities (just as he had to humans).

For horses he has a deep affinity, but cats, for example he finds irritating.  ‘I don’t like their chichi affected air of independence, nor the way that they come and sit on your lap with an air of “Now you may stroke me”.’

Dogs he has often depicted, and owned.  The late Pluto was a sitter for a number of works over the years, both paintings and etchings, with and without human companions.  Now Eli, David Dawson’s dog – a relation of Pluto’s – is an equally frequent model.

A year before the sittings, Freud had painted small picture depicting the patch of his back garden where Pluto is buried – a few leaves, the little wooden grave marker that David Dawson painted Pluto’s name on: ‘I was rather excited by that painting because it’s almost of absolutely nothing, so how the actual paint went down has just never been as important.’

Pluto’s Grave, 2003

During a conversation about human ageing, Gayford recalls the etching which Freud made of Pluto when the dog was old, arthritic, losing its sight and close to death. Freud added a hand, almost disembodied like the hand of God in medieval art, because he felt the creature needed company.

Pluto Aged Twelve, 2000

The book will be especially valued for Gayford’s fascinating observations of the way that Freud went about his craft.  So, for instance, on 3 December 2003 he writes:

LF has worked standing up since a moment in Paris in the 1950s, before which he always sat down.  This makes his  working procedure, which may involve three sittings a day and as much as ten hours’ work, quite an arduous one for a man of very nearly eighty-one (his birthday is in five days’ time, on the eighth). LF makes green tea and we talk for a while, then we go upstairs to the studio and the sitting begins.

This is the first moment when paint will actually go on the canvas. There is, it emerges, a preliminary ritual when LF is using pigment. First, he rummages around and finds a palette, thickly encrusted with worms and gouts of dried pigment. Then he spends a considerable amount of time carefully cleaning a zone at the bottom left near the thumbhole. There follows more casting around for suitable brushes and tubes of paint that lie around in mounds on a portable trolley and on top of a cupboard near the wall. From the pile ofold ragged sheets in the corner of the studio he selects a clean section, tears off a square and tucks it into his waistband, like a very informal butcher or baker.

These rags are another element in the arrangement of the studio. They lie around in piles in the corners of the room. In a couple of paintings of a decade and a half ago, two nudes of the same model entitled Standing by the Rags (1988-89) and Lying by the Rags (1989-90), they are an important part of the visual architecture, billowing like the clouds in a scene of saints in heaven by Titian or Veronese, but real. When LF lived in Paddington, at one point he lodged above a  rag-and-bone shop, ‘and I discovered the rags were of great use to me’. They’ve been part of his equipment, and the  furnishings ofhis studios, ever since.

The rag-apron is used for wiping brushes and occasionally the palette knife. The larger palette scrapings are wiped on the walls, where they radiate in areas, and on the doorframe. Blobs of pigment have been trodden into the floor and telephone numbers and cryptic words scribbled on the plaster. […]  The effect of the paint-smeared interior is very much like certain kinds ofabstract painting, or – changing the metaphor – a nest which LF has slowly, almost accidentally, constructed through the routines of his work. The walls themselves, apart from the starbursts and crusting of  vigorously trowelled paint, are washed in a neutral brown.

Outside the studio, up and down the stairs, little patches and speckles of stray pigment also proliferate It is a strange  effect in this otherwise perfect mid-eighteenth-century house; one that LF accepts, I presume, because it humanizes – personalizes – the spaces. ‘Sometimes someone goes to the bathroomupstairs, and I quite like the way they leave traces.’

There is a great deal more in this fascinating and entertaining book.  The index includes an entry, which may be unique in the history of indexing, for ‘eggs, personalities of’, that refers back to a conversation about a still-life by Freud of some eggs. Freud said that painting it he ‘discovered that on close examination each showed distinct personal traits’.

On 4 July 2004 Man With a Blue Scarf is finished and Gayford writes that it is, in part

A painting of my own fascination with the whole process of being painted.  I see that intensity of interest in the picture.  It’s me looking at him looking at me. […] There are many elements caught in this image: time, passing moods, feelings.  It’s a record of all those hours of conversation, and of just silently being together in this room.

But it’s not quite over: ‘After a gap of a month, and a holiday, we began all over again on an etching.  But it was not the same …’

Portrait Head, as the etching came to be called, turned out to be a very different kind of portrait revealing Gayford contemplative and tense, whereas the painting ‘was a social portrait – me looking outwards, engaged with my surroundings’.

In July 2011, six years after the final sitting and two years since Gayford wrote the final words of this book, Lucian Freud died. For this 2012 paperback edition, Gayford adds an Afterword which includes this eulogy for the artist:

His had been an epic life, full of achievement. I shall miss him – his wit, his presence, his intelligence – tremendously. But because he was an artist, and an extraordinary one, quite a lot of his thought and his feelings survive, embedded in his paintings. I continue to think about them, and particularly – of course – the two he made of me.

Martin Gayford’s portrait was one of those exhibited earlier this year in the National Portrait Gallery’s tremendous show, Lucian Freud: Portraits.  It was displayed next to the portrait of Andrew Parker Bowles titled The Brigadier, which Freud had just finished when he began Gayford’s portrait,  and opposite Freud’s portrait of David Hockney, whose conversations with Gayford are recorded in his book A Bigger Message.

See also

David Hockney: My Yorkshire

Anyone who has browsed the most-read posts on this blog will know that I am a fan of David Hockney’s recent Yorkshire paintings, as seen in the exhibitions at Salt’s Mill last year and, currently, the Royal Academy.  But I have to admit I was a tad disappointed with David Hockney: My Yorkshire Conversations with Marco Livingstone that I have just read, courtesy of the embattled Wirral library service.

The book consists of conversations between Hockney and Marco Livingstone who has written extensively on Hockney and co-curated the current Royal Academy exhibition, A Bigger Picture.  It’s a lovely book to look at – produced in A4 landscape format with reproductions of many of the paintings from the RA exhibition on good quality paper, with several of the larger paintings printed across double A4 fold-out spreads.

Where the book disappoints, for me, is in the text.  Livingstone has chosen to transcribe verbatim several conversations he had with Hockney during the period when he was engaged in his painterly exploration of the Yorkshire Wolds, producing the huge paintings of trees and rolling landscapes through the seasons that culminated in the RA exhibition.  Unfortunately, these conversations are not, for the most part, particularly revealing.  Hockney is often rather opaque and contradictory when expressing his well-known views on, for example photography and art; and Livingstone’s prompts often fail to push Hockney to clarify his meaning.  All in all, these conversations are nowhere near as revealing or interesting as those that form the basis of Martin Gayford’s excellent A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney.

The issue of Hockney’s attitude to photography keeps recurring in his discussions with Livingstone, particularly with reference to the controversial argument he articulated in The Secret Knowledge, that advances in realism and the accuracy of representation in art since the Renaissance were primarily the result of optical aids such as the camera obscura, camera lucida, and curved mirrors, rather than being primarily due to greater artistic skill. What can be confusing is that, on the one hand Hockney insists on the importance of photographic technology, whilst at the same time speaking of photography being finished and presenting a flat and restricted view of the world.  In this respect he often talks of his return to landscape painting in Yorkshire in the late 1990s, first in watercolours and then in oil paintings, as his ‘photographic detox’; yet, at the same time the recent period of work in Yorkshire has also seen a return to photography with his experiments with nine-camera arrays.

Hockney does, indeed, admit to being contradictory:

Well, I go hot and cold about things.  I’m interested in images.  I’m interested in how images were made in the past.   .. If you’re interested in images, you’re interested in the photograph as well; it’s an image.  So I’ve always been interested in photography, but I’ve always thought it was not that good a way to make pictures.  I see now it’s because the camera isn’t used right, and all my criticism has always been this: it was always the same, ‘Well, use the camera another way’.

Livingstone begins, though, by taking Hockney back to the time when he first became aware of the Wolds:

I would have been 14, I think.  1952. In the summers of 1952 and 1953, when I was at Bradford Grammar School, I worked on a farm between Wetwang and Huggate, stooking corn, as a schoolboy.  I had a bicycle, of course that was the only way you could get around here, and I cycled around, all over…

There were no paintings of the Wolds then: working ‘long, long days’, from 7 in the morning to 7:30 at night; ‘but I was aware that I was in a lovely space. Those fields are still there.  You get wonderful views.  I do react to space, I am very aware of that.’  Later, in the 1980s, his brother went to live in Flamborough, and later still his sister moved to Bridlington, followed by his mother.  When his mother was in her nineties Hockney visited her regularly in Bridlington, and began exploring the Wolds.  Then, in 1996, when Jonathan Silver, his great friend and developer of Salt’s Mill in Saltaire, was dying of cancer, Hockney for the first time stayed over in Yorkshire for six months or more and began painting the Wolds.  He was driving every day from Bridlington to Wetherby to see Jonathan, and every day he was travelling up and down Garrowby Hill.  He made some drawings, and after Jonathan died, back in Los Angeles, he did the wonderful Garrowby Hill painting.

After Hockney returned to settle in Yorkshire, the first paintings he did were watercolours.  He speaks of the discipline of working with watercolours:

Watercolour has to discipline you in the sense that there are certain methods.  For instance, you have to paint from light to dark in watercolour.  In oil painting you can do what you want.  I liked the disciple of it;  the discipline is making you do things.

Soon, though, he was painting in oils and excited about the possibilities of painting compared to photography.  He became deeply aware that we ‘see with memory’:

None of us see the same thing.  No matter what we are looking at.  When I am looking at anything now, it’s now.  Memory is also now.  When I am looking at you, I have memories of you before.  Someone who has never seen you before doesn’t, so they see something different.  That’s what I’m saying.  That’s true of everything.  The landscape, where you are.  I became rather fascinated with this, especially when you are watching seasons change; the same trees change.  Because you have the memory of last winter, but you are seeing more this winter. ‘I didn’t notice that last winter’.  The first winter, I didn’t notice how all the branches were reaching for the light, especially in December, that’s when they stand up the straightest.  You don’t notice that until you’ve been around a while or looked at them.  This was also linking it with memory.

Three Trees near Thixendale, Winter 2007

Hockney tells Livingstone how he went about painting the trees near Thixendale (a sequence of three observed at each season).  The paintings were based on observation, rather than photographs:

We took some photographs, but they were all flat to me, and I am painting spatial feelings.  With those trees, the first time I decided it was a subject was August 2006.  I thought I’d do them in August, because they looked so majestic to me.  I realized they were about 200 years old each.  There were a lot of things about them. … Once you spend the winters here, you realize that every tree is different.  Every single one.  The branches, the forces in it, they are marvellously different. […]

They are like faces , they are.  Especially in the winter.  They are not skeletons, either.  They are very, very living; a skeleton isn’t.  So you come to see that a tree, after all, is the largest plant form we know.  It’s also a kind of physical manifestation of the life force, and we can see and feel that. … Van Gogh was thrilled by that, the infinity of nature, the never-ending variety.

William Carlos Williams was on the same wavelength:

All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold.
‘Winter Trees

Three Trees near Thixendale, Summer 2007

The Thixendale Trees – all four paintings – were done entirely in the studio.  Hockney says,  ‘I wanted to use memory, you see.  I had done a lot of hard looking.  I was beginning to get a vocabulary’.  And the paintings got bigger:

What was thrilling was painting from nature on what were quite big canvases – but remember there were six.  It’s unusual to paint on that scale direct from nature.

Later, of course, they got bigger still.

In the second of the two conversations which make up the book, Hockney talks at length about the ideas that lay behind the films he has created using an array of nine video cameras attached to a moving vehicle.  The films form part of the RA exhibition and create the sensation of being in nature and travelling through it.

When I went back to the camera, I didn’t go back to using it like Vermeer, like everybody else does, but I’ve used it as a collage. That’s why I went back to photography.  My critique is more that it doesn’t showyou enough, and that’s why I was bored with it.  So I took it up again to demonstrate that if you use a camera a different way, you can open it up. … A single camera isn’t very good at showing a landscape.  But nine cameras are.

Hockney 'drawing' with images from nine cameras

Towards the end of their conversation, Hockney and Livingstone discuss the new computer technologies that the artist has been using in the last few years – iPhone, iPad and printing directly from drawings created on the computer using Photoshop.  Some of these Photoshop images are reproduced in the book, and, personally, I think they are dreadful.  Onto a background painted by Hockney on the iPad are superimposed what look like superior clip art images of trees.  Nevertheless, Hockney is enthusiastic about the advantages of using a computer for both speed and precision.  He can magnify a small area of the painting temporarily so that he can work on it in detail.

For Hockney, the iPad has taken over as his sketchbook ‘totally’:

Why go back to a sketchbook?  This is terrific. … The iPad is affecting the way I’m painting, because I’m drawing bolder and bolder on it.  My mark-making is becoming bolder and bolder.

For me, the best of the iPad images reproduced in the book is this one, Untitled 12 August 2010:

In one exchange, Marco Livingstone suggests what Hockney’s recent flurry of work might signify:

With all these investigations into forms of picture-making using new technology, you have also managed during the past two years to continue using the very old technology to which you have always been devoted, that of oil painting.  Most of these pictures, including an immense painting on 15 canvases of felled logs, Winter Timber 2009, and a series of hawthorn blossom canvases, were made  in the large warehouse studio rather than from the motif. You call that sudden period of manic flowering in the spring ‘action week’, all the more exciting for its brevity and for your knowledge that a single downpour will bring down most of that delicate blossom. Is that feeling of the brevity of life – and the cycle of birth, death and renewal – particularly poignant to you as you get older? Is it an urgent desire to embrace the vitality of life that you wish to communicate in these pictures?

To which Hockney responds:

Yes, there is a desire to embrace the vitality of life and yes, it becomes more poignant as I get older.  It does for everybody, doesn’t it?  When people are in their twenties, they think they’re immortal, don’t they? When I was 23, after a year at the Royal College of Art, I received a letter from the National Insurance saying that unless I put more stamps on, ‘This could mean four and sixpence less in the pension’. The old-age pension. Well, I was 23: ‘Fuck your fucking pension! … And I thought, Fuck off. I didn’t care. I mean, four and sixpence less, this is in 45 years’ time! What are they going on about?’  Well, you think you’re immortal when you’re 23. You think you’ll never be 63, and I certainly wouldn’t have worried about four and sixpence less. […]

Well, you ponder your own mortality. But when I signed the lease for this huge studio two years ago, the moment I’d signed it I felt 20 years younger. I’d taken it on for five years, renewable to ten. I started planning, and I’m going to tell you, it gives you a lot of energy. I’d recommend it to anybody. I wouldn’t recommend retirement. Retirement isn’t a thing you even think about as an artist, anyway. Anybody who is spending their life doing what they like, any creative artist, continues till they fall over.

I’ll raise a glass to that!


A friend borrowed this book from Wallasey library which, according to the borrowing slip, is managed by Wirral Council’s Department of Regeneration.  Seems something very much of our times about that – books and reading seen only in terms of economic development.  I’m sure Hockney would snort.

David Hockney: A Bigger Picture

David Hockney: A Bigger Picture

We had bought our tickets weeks ago: a good move, since David Hockney’s show, A Bigger Picture, at the Royal Academy is now sold out for its entire run.

And show it is: this realisation hit me when I entered the gallery devoted to the arrival of spring.  This huge room brings to mind Hockney’s long involvement with theatrical spectacle, designing sets for the opera.  Stand at the centre of this overwhelming display and you are surrounded by 51 large prints, a series entitled The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 that records the transition from winter through to late spring on one small road.  The prints originate from drawings made on an iPad, an instrument that didn’t exist when he accepted the Royal Academy’s invitation in 2007 to mount an exhibition.   Dominating all, on the end wall, is a massive 32-canvas painting that represents the theme’s vibrant crescendo – The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (twenty-eleven).  This is a theatrical experience, a stage set with the viewer at the centre of the drama.

Viewers take in ‘The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011’

This is an astonishing painting, with vibrant colours and disembodied, Rousseauesque leaves and tendrils that seem to float among the vivid orange and purple vertical slashes of the tree trunks. On the woodland floor, spring flowers and green ferns form a William Morris tapestry.  It represents the acme of  Hockney’s intent to share his rediscovery of the English landscape, and to assert the importance of careful observation of the small but significant changes that unfold daily in the natural world around us.

Hockney poses before Arrival of Spring in Woldgate
Hockney with ‘The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, 2011’

This exhibition reveals Hockney as a showman.  He was invited to stage this exhibition in the autumn of 2007, immediately after the Royal Academy display of his huge painting, Bigger Trees near Warter, and he has spent the last four years not just painting furiously, but also playing a central role in planning the layout of the whole show, room by room, as if the RA were his own giant stage set (which it is, for the time being).  It’s a show in that you sense Hockney actively wants to communicate his feelings about art and representation, nature and looking, as well as putting on a great two hours or so of entertainment – a great quantity of paintings to look at, new technologies to marvel, a stunning high definition film show, and even a bit of ballet dancing with lots of jokey allusions.

In the first room you enter you encounter four immense oil paintings of trees near the Yorkshire Wold village of Thixendale, about 20 miles west of Bridlington where Hockney now lives and has his studio.  This is the countryside where, like his agricultural labourer grandfather before him, Hockney had worked on a farm as a teenager, and where he now sketches incessantly.

Hockney, Three Trees near Thixendale, Summer 2007

Three Trees near Thixendale, Winter 2007

Three Trees near Thixendale: Summer, Spring, Winter 2007

The series illustrates a view of three trees painted from precisely the same spot during the winter and summer of 2007, and the spring and autumn of 2008.

There is absolutely constant change. Superficially, Bridlington and the country around haven’t altered much in fifty years. But when you are here, you can see how it varies continuously. The light will be different; the ground changes colour.
-David Hockney

Hockney paints each scene in vivid colours: spring dominated by the season’s abundant greens and yellows, while the winter version has the three bare trees silhouetted against a deep belt of blue with parallel bands of orange and green in the foreground.

Here the tree is introduced as a key motif of Hockney’s recent work, seeming to embody, as the RA’s guide puts it, ‘a vital life force, whether in full leaf in summer or as a bare structure in winter’.  And there is Hockney’s other great theme in this recent work – nature’s transience.  The Thaxendale series, along with others in the show, are all about nature’s cycles and the passage of time – the same process that engrossed Claude Monet when he devoted his later years to painting water lilies in his garden at Giverny over and over again.

I have painted these water lilies a great deal, modifying my viewpoint each time … The effect varies constantly, not only from one season to the next, but from one minute to the next … So many factors, undetectable to the uninitiated eye, transform the colouring and distort the planes of the water.
– Claude Monet

There have been some highly critical reviews of this exhibition, such as those by Andrew Graham-Dixon and Alastair Sook, and these have usually commented on the startling contrast between what Hockney is now doing and the work he created in Britain and America in his younger days.  The next room, ‘Earlier Landscapes’, sets out to illustrate the extent to which landscape has always been present in Hockney’s work.  Here is a selection of paintings spanning the years from 1956 (Fields, Eccleshill’ and ‘Bolton Junction’) to 1998 (the gigantic and glowing ‘A Bigger Grand Canyon’) by way of the humorous ‘Flight Into Italy – Swiss Landscape’ of 1962 and ‘Nichols Canyon’ from 1980.

Hockney,   Fields, Eccleshill , 1956
Fields, Eccleshill,1956

The first two paintings were made when Hockney was a teenager studying at the Bradford School of Art.  With their subdued colours and dull light they offer a marked contrast to the recent work.

Flight into Italy-Swiss Landscape, 1962

‘Flight Into Italy – Swiss Landscape’ is Hockney’s at his most flippant, remembering when he went with some friends to Italy to look at paintings and architecture in a small van. Hockney was stuck in the back of the van (with the red coat, presumably), and so couldn’t see the mountains as they went through Switzerland.  He painted them later from a geology textbook.

Hockney, Nichols Canyon, 1980
Nichols Canyon, 1980

In ‘Nichols Canyon’ Hockney attempts to find a solution to the problem of portraying movement and the passage of time on the static two-dimensional surface of a canvas. In the painting he depicts how he saw – both in actuality and in the layers of memory built up through repeated journeys – the places he travelled through every day by car to his home at the head of Nichols Canyon. Hockney does not depict in any naturalistic way the canyon’s environmental features, nor does he illustrate the view from his home. Instead, he takes viewers on a journey through Nichols Canyon itself, visually recreating his daily drive from his home at the top of the canyon to his studio in Santa Monica Boulevard below it.

From this room, we ease into the Yorkshire landscapes beginning with the first ones that he completed between 1997 and 1999 after he had returned to Yorkshire to be near his close friend Jonathan Silver, who was terminally ill.  Here are the by now familiar images ‘Road Through Sledmere’ (1997), ‘Double East Yorkshire’ (1998) and the magnificent ‘Garrowby Hill’ (1998), with its echoes of the California landscapes with its vivid colours and expressiveness of viewing the landscape from a moving car.

Garrowby Hill, 1998
Garrowby Hill, 1998

These first Yorkshire paintings were all painted in the studio from memory.  By contrast, those in next room were all painted directly from observation in 2004 – 2005.  Two of the walls are crammed with arrays of small or medium-sized paintings, some oils and some watercolours. One painting, ‘Wheat Field Off Woldgate’, shares an affinity with Van Gogh’s
‘Wheat Field, June 1888’.  The point of view of each artist is similar: Vincent walked into the field to paint; Hockney, too, has set up his easel at the edge of the field, immersing us in the grasses and the wheat that stretches off into the distance where electricity pylons march.  For Hockney, Van Gogh is simply a great draughtsman, his work manifesting the two qualities that Hockney values most and considers wholly entwined: rigorous observation and mastery of drawing.

There are more hints of Van Gogh later on in the exhibition, in paintings of hawthorn blossom and in the purple whorls of ‘Winter Timber’.  The last room of the exhibition, which consists of a lavish display of 16 of Hockney’s sketchbooks and iPads, should not be overlooked.  It reveals, as do Van Gogh’s drawings, how ‘everything begins with the sketchbooks’, in Hockney’s words, and how a supreme draughtsman can reveal the likeness of a man’s face in a few deft lines.  As Brian Sewell put it in his otherwise scathing review of this exhibition, Hockney is ‘one of the best draughtsmen of the 20th century, wonderfully skilful, observant, subtle, sympathetic, spare, every touch of pencil, pen or crayon essential to the evocation of the subject’.

Wheat Field Off Wolgate 2005
Wheat Field Off Wolgate 2005
Van Gogh, Wheat Field, June 1888
Van Gogh, Wheat Field, June 1888

Another fine painting in this group is ‘Woldgate Tree’, a portrait of a solitary tree in early spring, just about to burst into bud.  The tree is defined in just a few very fast brushstrokes, three slashes of yellow.

Every tree is different.  Every single one. The branches, the forces in it; they are marvellously different. You are thrilled. This is the infinity of nature.
– Hockney

In these oils and watercolours, Hockney does indeed capture the infinity of nature: trees and puddles, clouds reflected in puddles, a series of poems in blues and greys.

Then another room that demonstrates Hockney’s fascination with examining the same place at different times of the day and the year.  This is ‘the tunnel’, a farm track near Kilham in the East Riding.  In summer the dense growth of trees completely encloses the track, as shown in ‘Early July Tunnel, 2006’.  Here is the same scene at two other seasons:

Late Spring Tunnel, May 2006
Late Spring Tunnel, May 2006
Winter Tunnel with Snow, March 2006
Winter Tunnel with Snow, March 2006

Woldgate Woods is another series of seven large paintings (each consisting of six canvases all made from the same viewpoint) that reflects Hockney’s admiration for Monet’s Water Lilies.  Again there is close attention to to changing light and seasonal conditions (compare to the two versions below, painted a couple of weeks apart and at different times of day; another version, dated 7 & 8 November 2006, is suffused with a misty light, while ’26, 27 & 30 July 2006′ is a study in green – leaves in many shades, dappled light falling on a far glade).   The height of the trees, the sense of space and the dazzling late autumn colours all heighten the intensity of being in nature. Hockney sets out to persuade us to open our eyes to our surroundings: ‘It doesn’t have to be Woldgate – your own garden will change as much’.

Hockney, Woldgate Woods, 21, 23 & 29 November 2006
Woldgate Woods, 21, 23 & 29 November 2006
Woldgate Woods, 6 & 9 November 2006
Woldgate Woods, 6 & 9 November 2006

The next room is devoted entirely to paintings of hawthorn blossom.  It is the strangest sight, and  I wasn’t entirely sure about it (though amidst all the critical reviews that this exhibition has received, it was this room that critics tended to like the most).   For the last three years, Hockney has prepared for what he calls ‘action week’, three or four days in late May or early June when the hawthorn blossom makes its fleeting appearance. Rising at dawn, Hockney has depicted the wild exuberance of the hawthorn in the early morning light.  He says that this moment is ‘as if a thick white cream had been poured over everything’.  I found Hockney’s preparatory charcoal drawings preferable.

Hockney, May Blossom on the Roman Road, 2009
May Blossom on the Roman Road, 2009

Writing in The Guardian, Adrian Searle spoke of these landscapes having ‘an almost surreal and visionary delight’, culminating in

a painting so over the top – ‘May Blossom on the Roman Road’, from 2009 – that it looks as though giant caterpillars were climbing all over a kind of mad topiary, beneath a roaring Van Goghish sky. I wish more works could be as crazy as this: Hockney captures and amplifies something of the astonishment of hawthorns in bloom. I kept thinking of dying Dennis Potter describing in that 1994 interview with Melvyn Bragg how “nowness” had become so vivid: “Instead of saying, ‘Oh, that’s nice blossom’ … I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom.

It is a very weird painting.

Hockney, Winter Timber, 2009
Winter Timber, 2009

On we go to a room entitled ‘Trees and Totems’, comprising a group of paintings of trees and cut timber in winter.  Here, Hockney juxtaposes the freshly-cut logs against the verticality of the purple ‘totem’ suggested by a hewn trunk and the myriad blue trees that remain upstanding, protectively surrounding the dead wood.  It is highly expressionistic, with vivid patterning (the tractor tracks on the purple trail in the foreground, the leaves and bracken alongside the logs seeming to evoke a William Morris design, and the marks on the bark of the violet stump).  Your eye is drawn along the line of the logs and the curve of the pink track on the left towards the Van Gogh whorl in the distant trees.  This is Alastair Sook in The Telegraph:

Another series, Winter Timber and Totems, introduces a touch of foreboding and forlorn melancholy. We are in the woods. Using an extreme Fauvist palette, Hockney paints tree stumps and felled logs. The culmination of the sequence is the 15-canvas oil painting ‘Winter Timber ‘ (2009). An imposing magenta stump dominates the foreground. Next to it, piles of orange logs stripped of their bark lie beside a road that leads off into the distance. The track is flanked by slender blue trees, some of which start to bend and curl into a disconcerting vortex as they approach the horizon. Thanks to the preternatural colours, the scene feels uncanny, suffused with the intensity of a vision. It doesn’t take long to read the stump and logs as reminders of mortality, or to understand that Hockney has transformed a humdrum wintry scene into a gateway to the afterlife.  … Paintings such as ‘Winter Timber’ go beyond mere topographical record, and remind us of the power of Hockney in his prime.

After the ‘Arrival of Spring’ gallery, there are two decidedly unimpressive rooms.  One consists of paintings inspired by Claude Lorrain’s ‘The Sermon on the Mount’ (1656) which Hockney encountered in New York in 2009.  Having acquired a digital copy of the painting, he digitally ‘cleaned’ the surface which had darkened due to exposure to fire two centuries ago.  Brian Sewell was scathing about Hockney’s resultant studies in his exhibition review.  They didn’t appeal to me.

A final gallery of paintings gathers some of Hockney’s most recent work.  The room is dominated by very large prints of iPad paintings of the Yosemite Valley in California.  All that can be said about these is that blowing them up to this size exposes the limitations of iPad works which have charm and delicacy at their original size.  However, the three recent oil paintings of Woldgate in this final gallery, with their close focus on the wild flowers and grasses growing beneath trees and the delicate flowers of Queen Anne’s Lace are a delight.

Queen Anne’s Lace (or Cow Parsley as it’s generally known up north) is so ubiquitous along English roadsides and hedgerows that it tends to fade into invisibility.  But Hockney has latched onto it in these recent paintings – and in the 18-screen high definition films that he has developed as another means of depicting the landscape which are shown in the penultimate room of the exhibition.

Woldgate Woods, 11.30 am 7 November, 2010
Woldgate Woods, 11.30 am 7 November, 2010
Woldgate Woods, 9.30 am 26 November, 2010
Woldgate Woods, 9.30 am 26 November, 2010

In the past, Hockney has criticised photography, saying that it is ‘all right, if you don’t mind looking at the world from the point of view of a paralysed Cyclops’.  What these films (stunning in the high-definition clarity and in their widescreen opening to peripheral vision) are about is  his attempt to overcome the discrepancy between how we see the three-dimensional world in space, volume and time, and how to translate that vision into a two-dimensional representation. He tried this before with his photo collages in the 1980s ( a few of which are on display here in the ‘Earlier Landscapes’ room).

In 2007, Hockney began experimenting with a set of nine synchronised, high-definition, video cameras attached to a rig on his Jeep. Hockney and his assistants drive slowly along the road to ‘The Tunnel’, for instance, filming first one side of the road, and then the other side, before joining them together. ‘A single camera isn’t very good at showing landscape,’ he claims, ‘but the nine cameras are’.

We see space through time. When you’re seeing the nine-camera videos of Woldgate, it’s a different time in the top right-hand corner from what it is in the left-top corner. Just as it is in real life for you.
– Hockney

The films run for about 20 minutes or so, and are both beautiful and hypnotic.  This is not simply a widescreen movie: by aiming each of the nine cameras in a slightly different direction, Hockney’s team have got close to how we experience walking through a landscape with our own eyes.

As a finale, there are scenes filmed in Hockney’s Bridlington warehouse studio with a pianist and ballet dancers,  nods to Degas, Matisse and maybe Van Gogh (yellow chairs) and, at the end Hockney raising a red mug.  At one point we see a poster with the message, ‘DEATH waits for you when you do not smoke’ (incontrovertible for sure, and an expression of the combative position on smoking that Hockney has repeatedly taken).

This is an enormous exhibition, filling ten rooms, including the vast Gallery III devoted to ‘The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire, in 2011’.  It comprises vast oil paintings, the 52 works in ‘The Arrival of Spring’ (51 of which are iPad drawings: the 52nd is a 15 metre oil painting), a wall of 18 screens showing footage from 18 cameras, a wall of watercolours, a room filled with sketchbooks (each displayed with a monitor above it, on which the pages open in a slideshow), another displaying 12 ft high iPad drawings of Yosemite, a scattering of charcoal drawings and a number of earlier landscapes.  It has been hugely popular with the public, yet almost all the reviews by art critics were hostile to a greater or lesser extent.

It is undoubtedly true that, having decided to fill the Royal Academy with work completed almost entirely in the last six years, Hockney has run the risk of quantity exceeding quality. There certainly could have been some pruning.  I could have done without the Yosemite iPads and the Lorrain homage.  But it is the sheer quantity of images (sometimes stacked two or three deep on the walls) that succeeds in immersing the viewer in the exuberance and ever-changing character of the natural landscape.  It is this, I think, that makes the show so popular.  Hockney knows how to convey – in oils, watercolours or scratches and smears on an iPad screen – a misty November morning, the sharp sunlight of an early May morning, or bars of autumn sunlight slanting through the trees in Woldgate Wood.  He leads us to see the things that we stop seeing because they are so familiar – roadside nettles, Queen Anne’s lace, dock leaves and wild flowers, the fantastical shapes of hawthorn blossom, and trees in their endlessly varied structure and foliage.

He experiments endlessly with new technologies, but not for its own sake. The 18-screen films, like the very large scale of his new paintings, is about trying to capture the experience of seeing in three dimensions, making us crane our necks, walk about, glance all over the place. These works – indeed the whole exhibition – envelop the viewer, as if the landscape isn’t simply out there, like a flat surface or a window, but all around us.

As for the iPad drawings – the speed with which Hockney can create them has allowed him to capture changing light effects through the day or the seasons. And that is the real theme of this exhibition – the representation of time itself, moving through the day, moving through the year, moving from shadow into bright sunlight.

See also

Hockney’s Bigger Message: hand, eye and heart

David Hockney and Martin Gayford

I’ve been reading A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney in advance of going to see Hockney’s Royal Academy exhibition next week.  The book, which is lavishly illustrated consists of conversations between Hockney and his art historian friend Martin Gayford, and it is one of the best books on art that I have read.

Martin Gayford has compiled a record of a decade’s worth of conversations with Hockney, thoughts and ideas that have been exchanged ‘by a variety of media old and and new: telephone, email, text, sitting face to face talking in studios, drawing rooms, kitchens and cars’.  So, like the washes that make up a watercolour, the text is an accumulation of layers, arranged by Gayford but the thoughts being entirely Hockney’s.

The conversations, elegantly and plainly written by Gayford, range widely over Hockney’s career and obsessions, as well as broader questions of art and representation. Gayford prompts Hockney to talk about his move from California to Bridlington, the preparations for the exhibition at the Royal Academy, his views on the differences between painting and photography, the importance of drawing, and his ongoing love affair with the new technology of the iPhone and iPad.

During encounters at Hockney’s Bridlington studio and out at favourite locations in the Yorkshire Wolds, Hockney explains how, for the last decade,  he has been drawn to painting the landscapes, trees and hedgerows of this rarely visited part of the country:

I’ve always loved this part of the world, and I’ve known it for a long time. In my early teenage years I worked on a farm here … it was  a place where you  could  get a job  in  the holidays.  So I came and stooked corn in the early 1950s. I cycled around, and I discovered it was rather beautiful.  Most people don’t realize that, because even  if you  drive to Bridlington from West Yorkshire you think it consists of just a few fields. The Wolds are rolling chalk hills. No one ever comes off the main road. If you do, you’re the only car around. You almost never see another one, just occasional agricultural vehicles. I can take out large canvases, never meet anyone. Once in a while a farmer comes to talk and look. The whole of East Yorkshire is fairly deserted. Except for Hull, there’s no big city. Beverley is the county town; Bridlington is on the road to nowhere, meaning you’ve got to aim to come here. So I can paint here totally
undisturbed.  I enjoy this little bit of England very much.

David Hockney painting The Road to Thwing, Late Spring.

The two friends meditate on the problems and paradoxes of representing a three-dimensional world on a flat surface, whether by drawing, painting or using a camera.  All artists must reflect on these issues, but Hockney has always expressed his thoughts publicly, whether on film or in books such as Secret Knowledge (2000) in which he put forward the thesis that European painters had used images made by lenses, mirrors and cameras for at least three centuries before the invention of the daguerreotype and the birth of modern photography in 1839.

The pair reflect on drawing, with Hockney averring that drawing makes you ‘see things clearer, and clearer, and clearer still’, and explore Hockney’s turn to watercolours when, in 2003, he exhibited a series of watercolour portraits – a challenging project because the medium doesn’t allow for more than two or three layers of washes or the repeated revision that is usual with portraiture:

I used watercolour because I wanted a flow from my hand, partly because of what I had learned of the Chinese attitude to painting.  They say you need three things for paintings: the hand, the eye, and the heart.  Two won’t do.  A good eye and heart is not enough; neither is a good hand and eye.  I thought that was very, very good.

David Hockney: Self-Portrait with Red Braces (2003)

Hockney and Gayford chew over what significance different media have for the artist and the way we see – from the wall of the Lascaux cave to an iPad. The observations from both men range over numerous other artists – from Van Gogh to  Vermeer, Caravaggio to Picasso – with shrewd insights into the contrasting social and physical landscapes of California, where Hockney spent many years, and Yorkshire, the birthplace to which he has returned. Hockney vividly recalls  individuals he has encountered along the way – from Henri Cartier-Bresson to Billy Wilder – making this an entertaining read.

Although he has experimented with photographic collage techniques in the past, Hockney feels restricted by photography, asserting that it has made us all see in a rather boring similar way:

We think that the photograph is the ultimate reality,but it isn’t because the camera sees geometrically.  We don’t.  We see partly geometrically but also psychologically.  If I glance at the picture of Brahms on the wall over there, the moment I do he becomes larger than the door.  So measuring the world in a geometrical way is not that true.

David Hockney in front of Bigger Trees Near Warter (click to enlarge)

This leads on to a discussion about why he has taken to painting bigger and bigger pictures such as Bigger Trees Near Warter, ‘perhaps’, says Gayford, ‘ the largest pure landscape painting in art history, certainly the the most sizable ever painted entirely out of doors’.  For Hockney, the size of these recent paintings is crucial:  ‘a photograph couldn’t show you space in this way.  … I think in the final picture you have a sense of being there.

A still from the 18-screen video May 12th 2011 Rudston to Kilham Road 5 PM.

That sense of being there is something that he is striving for in his latest deployment of new technology – the 18-screen, multi-image, wide-angle, high-definition films of hedgerows, foliage and trees which he describes as ‘drawing in space and time’, and which are a dramatic element in the new exhibition.

Hockney loves gadgets, and he loves to paint, and, as these conversations reveal, he loves trees:

Trees are the largest manifestation of the life-force we see.  No two trees are the same, like us. We’re all a little bit different inside, and look a little bit different outside. You notice that more in the winter than in the summer. They are not that easy to draw, especially with foliage on them.  If you are not there at the right time, it is difficult to  see the shapes and volumes in them. At midday, you can’t do that.

For Hockney, trees are long-lived, for a while they become old friends and then they outlive us (though not always).

Yes, the trees become friends. One road I like particularly has trees that must have been planted two hundred years ago. I’ve always liked trees, but being here you look really hard at them. You notice things. The ash trees are always the last to come out.

Hockney and Gayford discuss other artists who shared the same passion; they talk about Constable, who had a favourite ash tree that he passed every day on Hampstead Heath, and his 1821 Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree, an intense study of the details of bark; and they refer to Colin Tudge’s The Secret Life of Trees, a book that both men admire. Gayford writes that trees are ‘like human figures in the landscape, vegetable giants, some elegant, some heroic, some sinister … but they are also remarkable feats of natural engineering, capable of holding up a tonne of leaves in summer against the forces of gravity and wind’.

John Constable: Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree c.1821

The move back to Yorkshire made Hockney intensely aware of the changing seasons, another central theme of his recent work, particularly the paintings of the place he has called ‘The Tunnel’, a nondescript track leading off the road that is flanked on both sides by trees and bushes that arch over the track.  He has painted this place in every month of the year.  This is Hockney thrilled at the onset of spring in East Yorkshire:

Every time we get the spring I get thrilled like that. Here we’ve noticed – and it takes you two or three years to notice – there’s a moment when spring is full. We call it ‘nature’s erection’. Every single plant, bud and flower seems to be standing up straight.  Then gravity starts to pull the vegetation down. It was the second year I noticed that; the third, you notice even more. At the height of the summer, the trees become a mass of foliage, and the branches are pulled down by the weight. When it falls off they’ll start going up again.  This is  the  sort of thing you  notice if you  are looking carefully. The fascination just grew for me here. This was a big theme, and one I could confidently do: the infinite variety of nature.

Through these conversations we learn a great deal about art, and gain a real sense of Hockney’s boundless enthusiasm and energy – hugely productive, painting outdoors nearly every day, and engaging delightedly with the latest technology. Towards the end of the book he remarks:

I am greedy for an exciting life. I want it to be exciting all the time and I get it, actually… I can find excitement, I admit, in raindrops falling on a puddle and a lot of people wouldn’t.

See also

David Hockney’s new exhibition at Salt’s Mill

David Hockney’s new exhibition at Salt’s Mill

Three days in the Yorkshire Dales being blown and buffeted by the tail winds of Hurricane Katia. On our first evening, in our friends’ caravan in Littondale, there was a power cut for a couple of hours as the wind roared and shook us. Continue reading “David Hockney’s new exhibition at Salt’s Mill”