Hockney: pictures, family, friends and lovers

Hockney: pictures, family, friends and lovers

Hockney poster

‘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.

Hockney Bradford 1962

Hockney with his parents in Bradford, 1962

Hockney has given Randall Wright the run of his home movies and photographs – from home movies shot in the post-war Bradford terrace where his dad advised him, ‘Don’t worry about what the neighbours think,’ to glimpses of swinging sixties London where, at the Royal College of Art, he shaped his personal image – bleached blond hair, owlish glasses, and trendy clothes – and then on to Hollywood, the swimming pools, the surfers, and the gay life.

‘I grew up in Bradford and Hollywood,’ Hockney says at one point, talking about to his childhood love of ‘the pictures’ that imprinted in his mind an image of America as a land of sunlight, adventure and limitless horizons. It was there that, though he didn’t drive, he bought his first car, went blond (after seeing an advert on TV one night for Clairol which asserted, ‘blondes have more fun’).

Hockney Santa Monica 1964 Hockney pool

Hockney: a blond in Santa Monica, 1964

The privilege intimacy of Hockney’s home movies and photo albums are only part of what makes this film such a warm and uplifting experience; it’s also the clips from interviews with Hockney – from the present, winding back through the past – with their quintessential Hockney observations on life, art and friendship. Hockney’s friendships, and his love for his family are a central thread woven into the tapestry of this film. There is much laughter as a host of friends share anecdotes about the painter, while Hockney’s reflections on the devastating losses inflicted on his friends by AIDS  forms one of the film’s most deeply moving passages.

Hockney glasses

Hockney: those glasses

The glimpses of Hockney’s early days in London and his odyssey to America – New York first, then Los Angeles – are a reminder of just how attractive, how cool, a figure he was, with his blond hair, boyish charm and his quirky personality. Since his teens, America had been a kind of fantasy for Hockney – 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. The film makes apparent how Los Angeles (because of its topography and the fact that everyone drove everywhere) offered him privacy as well as deep friendship.  It was a place outside the art world. (in the Q&A after, he remarked that he lived, not in the art world, but in his own world) and beyond the constraints of English class and sexual prejudices.

Hockney LA 1964

Los Angeles, 1964: the car he bought the day he passed his driving test

In the film, Hockney recounts the amusing memory of how he arrived in Los Angeles unable to drive.  He decided to buy a bike so that he could visit Pershing Square, a location that had featured in a novel he had read.  In sprawling LA, it turned out to be an 18-mile cycle ride, and when he got there it was deserted.  He realised he would have to get a car, and tells how, in one day, he acquired Ford Falcon, took the driving theory test, and then passed the practical driving test, having barely driven the car.

Hockney, American Collectors

Hockney, American Collectors, 1968

In this shimmering world of brilliant light and rich, creative people, Hockney began to experiment. The light playing off the surface of a swimming pool, individuals posed like totems in surroundings flattened by the bright California light. A paintings such as American Collectors had the cool, detached mood of a thriller. One of several double portraits of friends and associates from this period, the painting depicts the contemporary-art collectors Fred and Marcia Weisman in the sculpture garden of their Los Angeles home. The couple (who were not among Hockney’s circle of close friends) stand as stiff and still as the objects surrounding them apart, her smile seeming to mirror the toothy grimace of the totem pole behind her.  It makes me think of The Graduate, directed the previous year by Mike Nichols (who died last week).

Hockney and Peter Schlesinger

Hockney and Peter Schlesinger

We see how his paintings at that time reflected his developing sexual identity. These are the paintings in which he returns repeatedly to shimmering blue swimming pools and portraits of men naked, especially of Peter Schlesinger, his first intense relationship which, when it ended, nearly broke him. He moved in glamorous circles, meeting rich and famous people, including Christopher Isherwood and his partner Don Bachardy, whose double portrait he painted.

Hockney, Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, 1968

Hockney, Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, 1968

Hockney’s painting speaks vividly of the place where he now found himself – a world away from the England he had left behind (there’s a wonderful sequence in the film that reinforces this, when Wright cuts from sunny California to the drizzly streets of Bradford and London). Here is the iconic novelist Christopher Isherwood and his partner Don Bachardy, thirty years his junior, living as openly gay couple. The minimal details include the two piles of books which denote their shared intellectual pursuits, and the eroticised bowl of fruit and corncob. Bachardy is still alive; I recall that he made a cameo appearance a decade ago in the film A Single Man, based on Isherwood’s novel of the same name.

Hockney, Beverly Hills Housewife, 1966

Hockney, Beverly Hills Housewife, 1966

One entertaining aspect of the film is the way in which Wright  animates certain works as people portrayed in them appear in the same poses and in the same location as the original, and speak of the circumstances surrounding the painting. For example, the painting Beverly Hills Housewife comes to life with its subject, philanthropist Betty Freeman, talking about the circumstances of its creation, while George Lawson and his then-lover, the ballet dancer Wayne Sleep, restage Hockney’s unfinished painting of them which the artist worked on between 1972 and 1975.

George Lawson and Wayne Sleep, 1972-75

George Lawson and Wayne Sleep, 1972-75

Sleep and Lawson return to the flat depicted in the painting, and recall the experience of sitting for Hockney. ‘I was playing ‘A Flat’,’ says Lawson, referring to the clavichord he sits at in the painting. ‘And I wanted to call the painting ‘A Flat. But it was really a painting about stillness.’  Sleep reveals how he secretly suspected the painting would never be finished, due to Hockney’s perfectionism: ‘Every time we went round there, there was something different going on, and I just thought, ‘This will never get finished”.

Hockney, Peter Getting out of Nick's Pool,1966

Hockney, Peter Getting out of Nick’s Pool,1966

A remarkable and enjoyable feature of the film is its ability, in high-definition, to pan across the details of a painting, just as you would as a viewer in a gallery. The close up views of a canvas are quite astonishing in their clarity. One section of the film is devoted to examining the evolving ways in which Hockney solved the problem of depicting the constantly changing surface of water – from the  moving water in Peter Getting out of Nick’s Pool to the intricate brushwork (which, he says, took him around two weeks) of A Bigger Splash.

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.

Hockney, A Bigger Splash, 1967

Hockney, A Bigger Splash, 1967

Randall Wright has preserved a fine balance between glimpses of Hockney’s personal life and discussion of his artistic development.  The film explores how Hockney has been constantly intrigued by the potential of new technologies (such as the fax machine and the iPad) and has embraced a variety of artistic techniques and fields of work.  We see him at work, for example, on the ‘paper pools’, made in 1978 after Hockney had been introduced to Kenneth Tyler, a New York printmaker who had perfected a unique, water-based paper pulp technique that combined painting and printmaking. Encouraged to try it, Hockney embraced the process enthusiastically. He liked its pulpy tactile surface texture and irregular outlines which offered a change from the flat, regular areas of colour given by the acrylic paints he had used in the swimming pool paintings.

David Hockney, Le Plongeur (Paper Pool 18), 1978

Hockney, Le Plongeur (Paper Pool 18), 1978

Further sequences deal with Hockney’s set designs for operas, multi-screen video experiments, and the works created on his iPhone and iPad.  He talks passionately about how art will always be for him a non-photographic way of seeing the world, a means of capturing a wider picture, more akin to the way we see the world through our own eyes.  There’s a moment, watching on a cinema widescreen in high definition, when you really understand what he means .  It’s when we see the monumental, 24-foot long A Bigger Grand Canyon from 1998.

Hockney had photographed the Grand Canyon in 1982. He said that he wanted ‘to photograph the unphotographable’:

Which is to say, space … There is no question … that the thrill of standing on that rim of the Grand Canyon is spatial. It is the biggest space you can look out over that has an edge.

Hockney’s solution in 1982 was to take a series of photographs which, with their multiple vanishing points, he placed together as the collage, one of several such photo-collages that he made at the time. 

For Hockney, the problem with photography was that the composition was a single, ‘tunnel’ view. His decision to make photo-collages followed a Cubist idea:

When you put one piece of paper on top of another… you put two pieces of time together, and therefore make a space. I thought I was making time, then you realise you’re making space… Then you realise time and space are the same thing.

In the summer of 1997, Hockney made two road trips from Los Angeles to Santa Fe and back, calling again at the Grand Canyon.  In the film he says:

I’d been contemplating some sort of big landscape of the West. Big spaces: that’s what was getting into my head. I was experiencing a growing claustrophobia … longing for big spaces.

Hockney 'A Bigger Grand Canyon' 1998

Hockney ‘A Bigger Grand Canyon’, 1998

Returning home to Los Angeles, Hockney prepared to paint it. He made two painted studies, the second comprising fifteen canvases.  The panoramic oil painting, A Bigger Grand Canyon was the culmination of this process of working out his response an artistic challenge: how to  depict space and the experience of being within a space, or travelling through a space, over time. Discussing works like this, Hockney refers to the lessons of Cubism, where a subject is depicted with multiple viewpoints, and insights he gained from studying Chinese scroll painting where different time sequences, different elements of a cityscape or landscape form an apparent whole. The same ideas had been applied in Hockney’s set designs for operatic productions.

Hockney, Street-lamps-Bridlington

 Hockney, Street-lamps, Bridlington, iPad painting, 2011

Despite the fascination with technologies and his early pop art associations, the film reveals how Hockney was initially  regarded as unfashionable, with his advocacy of drawing, commitment to traditional print and etching techniques, and rejection in his own work of abstraction.  Yet he has remained immensely popular and retains a delight in new tricks, such as the Brushes app for the iPad, whose technology allows us to rewind his brush strokes and watch the creative process unfold for ourselves.

Hockney LA paint

Hockney painting in Los Angeles, 1964

But if there is one constant thread that runs through this film it is friendship.  It reveals how crucial family and friends have been for Hockney throughout his life.  Some of them appear in the film – his sister, Margaret (who actually got him started on a computer); his art dealer, John Kasmin, who discovered him in the sixties; and Celia Birtwell, the designer, and subject of perhaps Hockney’s most famous portrait with her husband Ossy Clark and a white cat.  The intensity of his relationships is revealed most clearly in the sequences that concern that with Peter Schlesinger, and his long and supportive friendship with the art historian and curator, Henry Geldzahler.  In his introduction to my copy of Marco Livingstone’s 1976 David Hockney by David Hockney (in a passage I find has been asterisked by my daughter when reading for her degree ), Geldzahler writes:

Hockney’s photo albums reveal his romanticism and sentimentality about people and places.  His friends are photographed again and again. … If art and life can be separated for a moment to allow for the making of a point, they refer more to Hockney’s life than to his art.

Andy Warhol, Henry Geldzahler, David Hockney and David Goodman.

 Smoking: Andy Warhol, Henry Geldzahler, David Hockney and David Goodman (photo by Dennis Hopper)

In a recent online interview, it was put to director Randall Wright that there was something of the holiday about David Hockney: that, despite personal loss, he sees the world with holiday eyes, as if for the first time. Having just seen the Anselm Kiefer retrospective at the Royal Academy – in the same galleries where I’d seen Hockney’s vibrant ‘Bigger Picture’ paintings – this question interested me. This was Wright’s response:

Optimism is a decision. You can decide what you’re going to do with the experiences you have, and you can wallow in the obscenity of human behaviour, or you can believe that ‘life is a gift.’ That was David’s mother’s phrase. We’re given opportunities within this life and you can see it with holiday eyes or not. David isn’t telling us to look at how successful, practical and wealthy a life he is living – he’s getting us to look at what is free in life. The way to get a grip on the world is to go out and see what the world is doing for us, to step out of the angst. That’s the moment you calm down and learn something. That’s the moment where it’s crucial to accept and act on it, to forget yourself and actually look. It’s a way of life. And it’s in a visual looking for David, but it can be a different investigation for anyone, being free and asking questions and having faith that you can do anything. And not in the sense that we can ‘all be rich.’ David’s message is that you can decide to enrich your life. It’s all there for you. It’s that idea that lies behind the film.

Hockney and Kiefer: two different outlooks on the world. We need both.

David Hockney at home in the Hollywood Hills. He returned to LA last year.

David Hockney at home in the Hollywood Hills. He returned to LA last year.

At the end of Wright’s film, Hockney wanders out of his studio in the hills above Los Angeles to the garden and swimming pool.  It’s a miniature world with the palms and the swimming pool of his 1970s paintings, in which the bricks and railings are painted in brilliant Mondrian colours. As he pauses by the pool, staring thoughtfully at the hills, the commentary suggests that he is still searching.

David Hockney, ‘The Group XIII, 4-9 August, 2014

David Hockney, ‘The Group XIII, 4-9 August, 2014

The Q&A that followed the film was disappointing.  The conversation was conducted by an American who, though he was clearly on good terms with Hockney, appeared awkward and ill at ease.  He allowed Hockney to repeat himself, and his questions were not particularly incisive.  Though Picturehouse cinemas usually invite film-goers to submit questions for these events, only two were eventually put to Hockney.

However, the conversation but did reveal what Hockney’s currently working on at present – portraits of card players and other works that ‘reverse perspective’.  This is the new bee in H’s bonnet, though I’m not sure how original his thoughts are. His new group paintings seem to be another way of resolving the dissatisfaction he has long felt with traditional single-point perspective. This, Hockney argues, is untrue to the way human beings see. ‘When my eye moves, the perspective alters according to the way I’m looking, so it’s constantly changing; in real life when you are looking at five people there are a thousand perspectives.’

At the start of the film Hockney is asked, ‘Why are you popular?’ He replies:

I’m interested in ways of looking and trying to think of it in simple ways. If you can communicate that of course people will respond, after all everybody does look. The question is, how hard.


The film is in cinemas now, and will be shown on BBC TV in 2015.

Footnote 29.11.14

After a dismissive and superficial review by the Guardian film critic, Peter Bradshaw, there’s a much better piece by Jonathan Jones here.

See also

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 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.

See also

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.

See also


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