Man with a Blue Scarf: conversation, silence and time

Man with a Blue Scarf: conversation, silence and time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David and Eli (work in progress), 2003

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pluto’s Grave, 2003

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

Pluto Aged Twelve, 2000

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See also

David Hockney: My Yorkshire

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

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

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

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

Hockney does, indeed, admit to being contradictory:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Trees near Thixendale, Winter 2007

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

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

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

William Carlos Williams was on the same wavelength:

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

Three Trees near Thixendale, Summer 2007

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

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

Later, of course, they got bigger still.

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

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

Hockney 'drawing' with images from nine cameras

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

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

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

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

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

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

To which Hockney responds:

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

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

I’ll raise a glass to that!

Footnote:

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

David Hockney: A Bigger Picture

David Hockney: A Bigger Picture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hockney, Three Trees near Thixendale, Summer 2007

Three Trees near Thixendale, Winter 2007

Three Trees near Thixendale: Summer, Spring, Winter 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flight into Italy-Swiss Landscape, 1962

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

Hockney, Nichols Canyon, 1980
Nichols Canyon, 1980

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

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

Garrowby Hill, 1998
Garrowby Hill, 1998

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is a very weird painting.

Hockney, Winter Timber, 2009
Winter Timber, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See also

Hockney’s Bigger Message: hand, eye and heart

David Hockney and Martin Gayford

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

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

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

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

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

David Hockney painting The Road to Thwing, Late Spring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See also

David Hockney’s new exhibition at Salt’s Mill

David Hockney’s new exhibition at Salt’s Mill

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

British Masters: A New Jerusalem

The final episode last night of  the BBC 4 series British Masters, presented by James Fox.  He must have been in the studio this weekend re-editing his voiceover since the programme –  about postwar British painting – was bookended by his assessment of the work of Lucian Freud, referred to in the past tense.  That was sadly appropriate, but as for the rest – Fox hadn’t lost his penchance, seen in parts one and two, for hyperbole and conservatism.  ‘Today’, he intoned, ‘our great British painting tradition is in peril’.

Lucian Freud, Girl with a Kitten, 1947

The argument that Fox presented was this: in the decades after the horror of the Holocaust, when many had lost their faith in humanity, British artists turned to the great British figurative painting tradition to address the question, what does it mean to be human?  He argued that in early portraits such as Girl with a Kitten, 1947 (above), Lucian Freud ‘articulated the anxiety of his age’.  Despite the circumstances of Freud’s relocation from Berlin to London in the 1930s, I  suspect this painting has more to say about his first marriage to Kitty Garman (the woman portrayed) than wider existential concerns.

Similarly, Fox suggested that Francis Bacon ‘stared deep into his own soul to explore the human capacity for evil’. But here, too, it’s arguable that Bacon’s paintings express more about a sense of loss and guilt arising from the relationship with George Dyer, his most important and constant companion and model, who committed suicide in 1971, just two days before the opening of Bacon’s major exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris.

Graham Sutherland Thorn Tree (1945)
Graham Sutherland Thorn Tree (1945)

Much more convincing was the section on Graham Sutherland’s ‘thorn tree’ paintings made in Pembrokeshire in the immediate post-war period.  Sutherland experimented relentlessly with the motif of thorn trees, bushes and thorn heads (above), explaining:

About my thorn pictures: I had been thinking of the Crucifixion (I was about to attempt this subject), and my mind was preoccupied by the idea of thorns, and wounds made by thorns. In the country I began to notice thorn bushes and the structure of thorns, which pierced the air in all directions, their points establishing limits of aerial space. I made some drawings and in doing so a strange change took place. While preserving their normal life in space, the thorns rearranged themselves and became something else – a sort of paraphrase of the Crucifixion and the Crucified Head – the cruelty.

He began a series of ‘Thorn Head’ paintings in 1945 (below), initially inspired by the commission to paint a Crucifixion and by photographs of concentration camp victims from the recently ended Second World War.The thorns became a metaphor – for torture, the concentration camps, military hardware – for a ‘cruel and broken world in which nature and man was doomed to destroy itself’.

Graham Sutherland, Thorn Head, 1949
Graham Sutherland, Thorn Head, 1949

In his studies for the Crucifixion, commissioned in 1945 for the church of St. Matthew in Northampton (below), Sutherland became intrigued by the notion of Christ’s crown of thorns and began to incorporate the natural forms he encountered along the Pembrokeshire coast, abstracting them to give his work a surrealist appearance. His artistic inclinations lay more in the spiritual aspects of nature rather than religion but when he was commissioned to paint a crucifixion for St Matthews church in Northampton he drew deeply on the emotions he experienced viewing the photographs of concentration camp victims that had recently been published. These images became the inspiration for a painting that was critically hailed as defining the human condition in the immediate post-war era: ‘Belsen, Hiroshima, Nagasaki – all the world’s suffering condensed and distilled into one suffering body’ in Fox’s words.

Graham Sutherland: The Crucifixion,1946 St Matthew’s, Northampton
Graham Sutherland: The Crucifixion,1946 St Matthew’s, Northampton

Fox linked this postwar mood of anxiety and pessimism to the critique of consumerism and its invasion of the seclusion of the home and domestic life in Richard Hamilton’s Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? (below) before moving rapidly on to assert that  ‘as national pessimism gave way to a new optimism, David Hockney dared to suggest Paradise might be available to us all’.

Richard Hamilton, Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing?
Richard Hamilton, Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?

In Hockney’s bright and colourful California paintings, such as A Bigger Splash (1967, below), Fox saw British art moving on from despair to optimism.

David Hockney, A Bigger Splash

Yet, in the early 1970s, just as the world finally began to recognise the genius of Britain’s painterly tradition, Fox claimed, young artists at home turned against it.  And here, once again, Fox chose a dramatic event to support his thesis, implying that the artist Keith Vaughan took his own life as a consequence of the growing marginalisation of figurative painting such as his.  But was that the case?  Vaughan maintained extensive journals which reveal a gay man troubled by his sexuality.  He was diagnosed with cancer in 1975 and committed suicide in 1977, recording his last moments in his journal as the drugs overdose took effect: Fox let the camera linger as Vaughan’s spidery writing slid off the page.

Keith Vaughan, Landscape with Two Bathers (The Diver), 1954
Keith Vaughan, Landscape with Two Bathers (The Diver), 1954

With glimpses of Tracey Emin’s unkempt bed and Damien Hirst’s preserved animals, Fox drew his conclusion that the great British tradition of painting is today in peril, as interest and money gravitates towards other artistic forms.  But, is this to overstate the case?  As Marina Vaizey has remarked at the ArtsDesk:

Painting, and representational painting, in spite of all the theories and all the varied media that have absorbed artists in the pre- and postwar periods, has never gone away, even if we are in thrall to light bulbs going on and off, exploded sheds, inside-out houses: the art world now has room for everything. But Lucian Freud, although he would have abhorred the notion that in any way he was a crusader, almost single-handedly kept the whole idea of the significance of painting the world as one person saw it alive and at the centre of things.

But Hockney is still painting  (after a brief foray into photo-collage), while Lucian Freud persisted until last week. There are painters painting in Britain – if not always in the metropolis.  The tradition continues in the work of Kurt Jackson, Mary Newcomb, Peter Doig, John Knapp-Fisher, David Inshaw and George Shaw. There’ll always be painters.

Peter Doig,, Blotter, 1993
Peter Doig,, Blotter, 1993
John Knapp-Fisher: Cresswell Street, Tenby 1998
Mary Newcomb, Court Fields
Mary Newcomb, Court Fields
David Inshaw, The Badminton Game, 1972
David Inshaw, The Badminton Game, 1972
George Shaw, The Time Machine 2010

Walking the canal: Skipton to Saltaire

From Skipton, the canal wends its way along the valley of the river Aire, and for a good part of the way the towpath is wide and metalled so I was able to make good progress and cover 16 miles to Saltaire. Now just one leg of 13 miles remains before I reach the eastern end in Leeds.

Yesterday, like much of the past 10 days, was warm and sunny and the countryside was pleasant, though as far as Farnhill and Kildwick this is a noisy stretch, with the roar of the A629 to Keighley a constant presence.

Upper Airedale is a flat, wide valley here, bounded by tall steep hills and moorlands – especially to the north, where the fells stretch off towards Ilkely Moor.  The canal hugs the hillside just above the valley floor, providing a lock-free pound that extends for the full 17 miles from Skipton to Bingley. The line of the canal was laid out along the Aire valley by James Brindley, one of the greatest of the canal builders.  The canal passes by a series of villages – Bradley, Kildwick, Silsden – each showing evidence of the impact that the canal must have had on this largely agricultural area, with old mill buildings, particularly in Silsden.

At Hamblethorpe swing bridge, just past Bradley, there is a sudden jolt that pulls you back to a tragic moment in the past – a memorial to seven Polish RAF airmen who died when a training flight crashed here in September 1943.  The men had escaped Poland in 1939 during the German invasion, and they enlisted with the RAF, which raised ten squadrons made up entirely of Polish personnel.

With each successive stage of the walk this year, the countryside has become steadily more parched, as rainfall has been scarce here, as well as in the north-west, for most of the spring and early summer. Just past midsummer, the banks and hedgerows begin to lose their colour anyway – though the flowers of the elderbery and dog roses provide splashes of colour.

At Farnhill the canal -passes through woods before emerging at the village where canalside industrial buildings have been converted to residential use.

Kildwick is the next village – all Yorkshire stone and steep streets spilling down the hillside to the canal, one of which runs under the canal.

Silsden is another, larger, stone-built industrial town.  Generally an agricultural area, industry came with the canal and the Industrial Revolution. The town hosted a number of mills, none of which now operate in their original form. There is still industry in the town, some in old mill buildings and some in a new industrial estate between the town and the river.

I stopped at the Bridge Inn at Silsden, which appeared to be a converted end-terrace house.  Certainly entering the bar was like walking into someone’s living room, with a small bar on the far wall.  The room was draped in England flags and posters – at first the landlady said she couldn’t offer me food, as she was only doing it during half-time (this was the day of the England-Slovenia World Cup match).  But she made me a fine cheese sandwich and I set outside with a pint of Black Sheep Ale from the independent brewery of the same name in Masham.

Apparently, the origins of the pub go back to the 1600s when ale was brewed at a farmhouse here. An inn developed in the early 1700s when it was first known as the Coach and Horses, and then the Boot and Shoe Inn. There is an old sign dated 1799, depicting a boot and shoe, over the original inn doorway, which can be seen now from the beer garden. It also bears the initials I S L, which refers to the Longbottom family who had a long connection with the inn. An 1822 trade directory lists John Longbottom as victualler. The canal was dug through Silsden between 1769 and 1773 and eventually, in 1826, a new road (now known as Keighley Road) was built at the other side of the inn, along with a bridge going over the canal. This meant the inn had to extend upwards and a new front door was created at the roadside.

From here the canal gains a decidedly suburban feel – the towpath is widened, level and metalled, with plenty of cyclists taking advantage of it – and the canal is fringed, along many stretches, by housing, much of it recently-developed. But this is still very attractive walking.

The canal wends its way around the outskirts of Keighley, and soon I arrive at one of the great sights of the canal – the Bingley staircase.   An 18th century engineering masterpiece, the staircase comes in two parts – the Five Rise and Three Rise locks. These five locks operate as a staircase no intermediate pounds,  in which the lower gate of one lock forms the upper gate of the next. The locks are supervised by a lock keeper and are closed at night.

The 5-rise is the steepest flight of locks in the UK, with a gradient of about 1 in 5 or a total fall of 60 feet (look at that drop in the photo above!).

The lock system was designed by John Longbotham of Halifax and built in 1774 by local Stonemasons : Barnabus Morvill, Jonathan Farrar, William Wild all of Bingley and John Sugden from Wilsden. The locks raise boats 59ft 2in over a distance of 320ft.

When the Bingley staircase opened on 12 March 1774 it was a major feat of engineering. This meant that the canal from Gargrave to Leeds was now open to traffic, and a crowd of 30,000 people turned out to celebrate.  The first boat down the Five Rise Locks took just 28 minutes. This must have been phenomenal: when I asked some people waiting to enter the staircase yesterday how long it usually took, they said ‘an hour to an hour and a half’.

It’s slow because all five locks must be ‘set’ before beginning passage. For a journey upwards, the bottom lock must be empty, with all the others full: the reverse is the case for a boat descending.

The opening of the staircase in 1774 was given full coverage in The Leeds Intelligencer:

“From Bingley to about 3 miles downwards the noblest works of the kind are exhibited viz: A five fold, a three fold and a single lock, making together a fall of 120 feet; a large aqueduct bridge of seven arches over the River Aire and an aqueduct and banking over the Shipley valley ……. This joyful and much wished for event was welcomed with the ringing of Bingley bells, a band of music, the firing of guns by the neighbouring Militia, the shouts of spectators, and all the marks of satisfaction that so important an acquisition merits”.

Adjoining the Three Rise locks is the mill owned by the Damart company – famous for manufacturing a large proportion of the thermal underwear worn in the UK.

Further along is another example of  the successful conversion of an old mill building into residential apartments overlooking the canal.

A little further along is bridge 205 – Scourer Bridge – an attractive structure that is a grade II listed building.  The citation describes it as ‘Hammer-dressed stone. Single horse-shoe elliptical arch with dressed and chamfered voussoirs. Coped parapet aligned to the slope of the hill’.

Next is Dowley Gap, with more locks and an aqueduct that carries the canal over the river Aire.

Another couple of miles and I arrived at Saltaire, named after Sir Titus Salt who built a textile mill here in 1853, along with a model village for the mill-workers.  Salt moved his entire business (five separate mills) from Bradford to this site partly to provide improved conditions for his workers compared to those in Bradford, and partly to site his large textile mill by a canal and a railway.

Titus Salt built neat stone houses for his workers, wash-houses with running water, bath-houses, a hospital, as well as an Institute for recreation and education, with a library, a reading room, a concert hall, billiard room, science laboratory and gymnasium. The village also provided a school for the children of the workers, almshouses, allotments, a park and a boathouse.

In 2001, Saltaire was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.  The buildings belonging to the model village are individually listed, with the highest level of protection being given to the Congregational Church which is listed grade I. At the moment it’s undergoing renovation and is surrounded by screens and scaffolding.

Salts Mill closed in 1986, and in the following year the late Jonathan Silver bought it and began renovating it. Today it houses a mixture of business, retail and residential units, with the main attraction being the 1853 Gallery, given over to the work of David Hockney, who was born in Bradford.

Jonathan Silver

Jonathan Silver had met Hockney back in the sixties and approached him about displaying his work in the Mill.  Hockney agreed, and the Gallery now displays paintings, drawings, photomontages and stage sets by Hockney.  Currently there is a large display of opera sets created by Hockney, as well as reproductions of a recent series of water colours of Yorkshire landscapes in midsummer.

David Hockney Yorkshire midsummer: A gap in the hedgerow

Yorkshire midsummer Roadside plants and landscape

There are various shops, including a superb bookshop, plus restaurants and a cafe where I restored my energy levels with an excellent giant scone.

Finally, it was time to catch the train back to Skipton along Airedale line: comfortable, quiet and fast, and with clear travel announcements at every stop. Now only 13 miles remain before the journey ends in Leeds.