Peter Lanyon: Soaring Flight

Peter Lanyon: Soaring Flight

During the 1950s, the small harbour town of St Ives in Cornwall played host to an astonishing group of painters that included some of the leading modern artists of the time. Among them were Alan Davie, Terry Frost, Patrick Heron – and Peter Lanyon. Of them all, only Lanyon was actually Cornish.

He died too young – a fact underlined by Soaring Flight, the superb exhibition currently showing at the Courtauld Gallery which gathers together a considerable number of his paintings inspired by gliding, the pastime which ended up taking his life.

Continue reading “Peter Lanyon: Soaring Flight”

Keith Jarrett at the Royal Festival Hall: music can heal

Keith Jarrett at the Royal Festival Hall: music can heal

Play like you think it’s going to be the last time. That’s the only way to play.
Keith Jarrett

Precisely one week after the atrocities began in Paris we were in the Royal Festival Hall watching Keith Jarrett give one of his most intense and impassioned solo performances. Hunched over the Steinway, his face at times just inches from the keys, the man in the single spotlight and all of us gathered together to hear him play represented everything that the killers seek to destroy – a shared pleasure in music and the freedom to mingle at peace on a Friday night with other human beings from anywhere in the world, of all faiths or none.

Continue reading “Keith Jarrett at the Royal Festival Hall: music can heal”

Allen Toussaint performs his songbook at Ronnie Scott’s

Allen Toussaint performs his songbook at Ronnie Scott’s

On Monday evening, waiting for Allen Toussaint to begin his solo set at  Ronnie Scott’s, I recalled the times in the early sixties when I would lie in bed listening to songs like ‘Working in a Coalmine’, ‘Mother in Law’ and ‘Fortune Teller’ on Radio Luxembourg.  Although I was not aware of the fact at the time, all these hit singles had been written and produced by Toussaint.

It was only in the 1970s, when reading the liner notes of albums by Bonnie Raitt, Little Feat and Lowell George, that I discovered that songs such as ‘What is Success’, ‘On Your Way Down’ and ‘What Do You Want the Girl To Do’ were authored by Toussaint – and that this was the same man who had been responsible for those hits by Lee Dorsey, Ernie K Doe and Benny Spellman I had enjoyed a decade earlier. Continue reading “Allen Toussaint performs his songbook at Ronnie Scott’s”

The First Bohemians: dissent, disorder and debauchery in 18th century Covent Garden

The First Bohemians: dissent, disorder and debauchery in 18th century Covent Garden

These days when we visit London we invariably stay at the Travelodge in Drury Lane. There, in Covent Garden, you’re at the heart of things, a walk gets you to innumerable places of interest, without having to descend into that ‘world of perpetual solitude, World not world’ that is the underground. So it was with a great deal of interest that I read Vic Gatrell’s The First Bohemians, a sequel to his rumbustious history, City of Laughter, that explored the bawdy, scurrilous and totally disrespectful culture of 18th century London. In The First Bohemians, Gatrell zooms in on the square quarter-mile or so around Covent Garden’s Piazza, 18th century London’s most creative territory.  ‘It’s an extraordinary fact’, Gatrell writes, ‘that by far the majority of 18th century painters and engravers, as well as most noted writers, poets, actors and dramatists’,lived in that narrowly-defined territory. Continue reading “The First Bohemians: dissent, disorder and debauchery in 18th century Covent Garden”

This Boy: two weddings and a tribute to two heroines

This Boy: two weddings and a tribute to two heroines

We went to a register office wedding recently, and a joyous occasion it was: made so by dancing up the aisle, the children of the marrying couple joining in the fun, and the relaxed attitude of the registrar.  The sense of an entirely different sort of Britain – more relaxed, more tolerant – to the one I grew up in was palpable.  I mention this because I have recently read Labour politician Alan Johnson’s memoir This Boy which  begins and ends with two different register office weddings.

wedding photo 1945
Steve and Lily, Kensington Register Office, January 1945

Johnson begins his account of an impoverished upbringing in London’s Notting Hill with a him studying photograph – a black and white image taken in January 1945 with a box camera – of his father and mother outside Kensington Register Office. Theirs was not to be a happy marriage: indeed, Johnson writes of his father that ‘it could be said he helped to kill the woman beside him’.

Were they happy on their wedding day?  Surely they must have been but the hand through his arm is curled and tense, not flat and caressing; almost a clenched fist.

‘On that day’, writes Johnson, Steve and Lily ‘must have been full of excitement and enthusiasm about the life that lay ahead of them’. But, ‘as things turned out, they spent it together yet apart – and then just apart’.

Johnson concludes his account with another register office wedding, and another photo: it’s the summer of 1968, and Alan Johnson, dapper in stylish Mod clothes and haircut, is getting wed to Judy.  With them is Linda, his sister. Linda and his mother Lily are the heroines of the story that Alan Johnson narrates in this moving and beautifully-written book that avoids any trace of sentimentality or self-pity.

Alan Johnson at his first wedding, his sister Linda right

Alan Johnson’s mother Lily was the second of ten children born to  a Scotsman and an Irishwoman in Anfield, Liverpool. During the Second World War she moved to London to work in the NAAFI.   It was there that she met Steve, at a NAAFI dance in 1944.  After they were married they moved into a room at 107 Southam Street, Notting Hill – a street whose buildings had been condemned as unfit for human habitation in the 1930s.  From that moment on, Lily’s life was a constant struggle against grinding poverty, loneliness (eventually abandoned by Steve), and poor health.  They had no electricity, shared a cooker on the landing, and peed in a bucket in the bedroom rather than trek down at night to outside privy in the yard. But Johnson’s book is not simply a tale of hard times; it’s a tribute to Lily’s love and determination, telling how she managed, against great odds, to bring up her children decently.

When Lily died, aged only 42, Alan was 13 and his sister Linda just 16.  The second half of the book becomes a tribute to Linda who stoutly resisted moves to separate the siblings and place them in care, and who then worked tirelessly to to keep them fed and sheltered, and ensure that Alan continued his education. In the words of his dedication, she ‘kept me safe’.

Linda held things together (even negotiating a council flat for the two of them) until Alan was old enough to make his own way in the world.  Meanwhile, Alan worked in a number of routine jobs that took second place to his abiding ambition – to be a pop star.  Remarkably, he almost made it.

Once he was bringing in a wage packet of his own, Johnson could indulge the passion for pop music which had taken hold before he was a teenager. Now he could buy, catalogue and carefully preserve precious pop singles – especially those of his beloved Beatles.  He had joined his first  band – The Vampires – when he was 13 years old.  They played the Beatles’ Thank You Girl (very badly).   He had learnt to play a cheap Spanish guitar his mother got him one Christmas, teaching himself  via the classic route (in those days) of Bert Weedon’s Play in a Day manual.

Later, doing a milk round for a young man from a tough Notting Hill family, he was offered an electric guitar of dubious provenance. When he left school at 15 his musical ambitions remained strong and he played with several bands, performing  Tamla and Stax soul alongside by the Stones, Small Faces and the Troggs.  The high point in his musical career came performing in front of 1,000 young people at Aylesbury College – and  making a record at Regent Sound in Denmark Street, a studio was where many great hits had been recorded. Though the resulting single was offered to several record labels, nothing came of it.

I rarely, if ever, read the memoirs of politicians, but this is the biography of a politician like no other.  It’s gained numerous accolades and has won the Orwell prize as well as the Ondaatje award  for the book that best evokes the ‘spirit of a place’.  It’s the story of a hard upbringing, but remarkably it makes few political points, and, avoiding self-pity, is along way from being a misery memoir. Johnson is clearly a more rounded individual than the robotic clones who seem to populate the political class these days – his love of music and football flows through the book, which is beautifully observed, funny, and uplifting.

Roger Mayne, Street Cricket, Clarendon Cresent, 1957

Roger Mayne, Street Cricket, Clarendon Cresent, 1957

This is one of the photos which illustrates Alan Johnson’s account.  It was taken around the corner from where Alan lived in Notting Hill by Roger Mayne, the renowned photographer who died in June aged 85.  Johnson writes that he is convinced that the blurred image of a child in the background of this photo is Linda,his sister.  Between 1956 and 1961, Roger Mayne photographed Johnson’s Southam Street many times, recording, in Johnson’s words,  ‘both the squalor and the vibrancy of life there, the spirit of survivors inhabiting the uninhabitable’.  In the Guardian’s obituary, Amanda Hopkinson wrote that Mayne ‘had a highly original eye for elusive detail’:

Self-taught, he was passionate about photographing what he knew – most famously, inner London. His skill in absorbing the radicalism of post-second world war “humanitarian photography” and interpreting it with artistic vision established him as one of the 20th century’s leading photographers. It also made him influential in the development of photojournalism.

His photographs of west London street scenes in the 1950s captured members of the first generation to be identified as “teenagers”. The W10 series, shot mainly around Paddington, contrasted young people’s exuberance with the urban dereliction they inhabited. For five years from 1956, Mayne focused obsessively on Southam Street, later to be demolished as part of a slum clearance programme. The street takes on a life of its own through its young residents: there is a kind of innocence in the scruffy juveniles fighting with wooden swords or tipping each other out of broken prams. It is hard to relate these youngsters, boys in shorts and unlaced leather shoes, girls with school-uniform gingham frocks and kirby grips pinning back their hair, to subsequent generations of teenagers.

Fashion burst suddenly upon Mayne’s subjects, with teddy boys in their satin lapels and teenage girls who still spent all day with hair in rollers under knotted turbans.

The Independent’s obituary stated that:

Roger Mayne was one of the outstanding British photographers of the postwar period. He is best known as the photographic poet of London’s dynamic street life in the then dilapidated area of Notting Dale in North Kensington. He photographed one street – Southam Street – from 1956 until it was demolished in 1961 to make way for Erno Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower.  This loving and extended study embraces street football and other games, bright-faced kids with bikes and barely a car to be seen, Teddy Boys (and Girls), impromptu jiving, plus the arrival of West Indian immigrants and that new phenomenon, the teenager. Mayne’s Southam Street photographs now seem like a statement of solidarity with the working class and a hymn to Britain’s new welfare state.

Here’s a gallery of some of the tremendous images which Roger Mayne captured in Southam Street as Alan Johnson grew up there.

 See also

City of Laughter: bawdy and scurrilous 18th century London

City of Laughter: bawdy and scurrilous 18th century London

Caricature Shop, Roberts, 1801

An engraving of a Caricature Shop, 1801

Recently I finished reading City of Laughter, Vic Gatrell’s exploration of the bawdy, scurrilous and totally disrespectful culture of Georgian London, vividly illustrated for us now through the popular prints of the time.  Gatrell begins as he means to go on, with an examination of Lady Worsley’s bottom.  The story provides a well-chosen introduction to the contrasts and contradictions of the period.

One view of 18th century Britain will emphasise the emergence of Enlightenment values as reflected in neo-classicism, rationality, moderation, and balance. Lady Worsley’s portrait, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1776 shortly after her marriage to Sir Richard Worsley, reflects the image which polite, aristocratic society wished to project.

Lady Worsley, Joshua Reynolds, 1776

Lady Worsley, Joshua Reynolds, 1776

But there was something else going on.  Between the 1780s and the 1820s, Londoners grew inordinately fond of ridicule and bawdiness, and of prints that revelled in satirising politics and international affairs or portraying scandal, debauchery and sexual goings-on in high places.  The more scurrilous they were, and the more obsessed with farts and bums, so much the better.  It was a no-holds barred culture that rejected the unwritten rule of early 18th century satire never to name names (such as in Hogarth’s engravings which ridiculed a type of person). By the 1780s, as Gatrell observes, this reticence was obsolescent. The boundary between public and private dissolved, as high-born sexually promiscuous adulterers or adultresses were explicitly lampooned – even including the heir to the throne, the Prince of Wales.

So, a mere six years after the Reynolds portrait, Lady Worsley was rudely caricatured by James Gillray. In one print he shows her taking a bath while her husband hoists one of her many lovers to peep at her naked behind. Remarkably, this incident was not a figment of Gillray’s imagination.  All was revealed in open court when Sir Richard Worsley brought a suit against one Captain Bissett for ‘criminal conversation’ (ie, adultery) with his wife.  Worsley had indeed hoisted Bissett onto his shoulders so that the captain could gaze through a bathhouse window on his wife’s nakedness. 

Sir Richard Worse-than-sly, exposing his wife's bottom; - o fye!' by James Gillray

James Gillray, ‘Sir Richard Worse-than-sly, exposing his wife’s bottom; – o fye!’, 1782

Gillray didn’t leave it there. Further revelations from the courtroom had told that ‘thirty-four young men of the first quality’ had enjoyed her favours.  Gillray’s response was wicked, depicting nine impatient gentlemen queueing on a staircase, waiting for their turn with Lady Worsley in bed.

Gillray, A peep into Lady W!!!!!!y’s Seraglio (1782)

James Gillray, ‘A peep into Lady W!!!!!!y’s Seraglio’, 1782

The case made the married couple the laughing-stock of London, and Worsley refused to pay Reynolds for his wife’s elegant portrait (which now hangs in Harewood House in Yorkshire). For Gatrell, though, the case provides a perfect illustration of the bawdy, scurrilous, subversive humour that is the subject of his book.

Vic Gatrell is a serious historian (University of Cambridge) and though his subject may be lewd and comedic he sets out to probe some pretty serious questions. City of Laughter is a highly enjoyable, gloriously illustrated, but seriously academic study of the art of the print at the end of the 18th and into the first two decades of the 19th century. Gatrell seeks to understand why Londoners in the period from the 1770s to the 1820s were so fond of ridicule and scurrility. The salacious images of Lady Worsley circulated widely among London’s upper-crust (the prints were not cheap).  Aristocrats – even the endlessly-lampooned Prince of Wales – sent out their manservants to queue at the printshops and buy the latest scandalous engraving.

Gatrell is interested in how the refined Londoners who bought and enjoyed these engravings squared their taste with politeness. Around 20,000 satirical prints were published between 1770 and 1830, reflecting a culture that laughed openly and heartily about sex, scandal, fashion and drink, suggesting to Gatrell that Gillray’s glimpse of Lady Worsley might reveal more about the times than paintings like Reynold’s portrait hanging on gallery walls. He quotes JH Plumb, historian of the period, who wrote:

An exceedingly frank acknowledgement, one might almost say a relish, of man’s animal functions was as much part of the age as the elegant furniture or delicate china.

Gatrell makes the claim that in this period London, despite the disease, hunger and thievery that haunted its streets, was indeed a ‘city of laughter’.  He makes the somewhat sweeping and difficult to substantiate claim that Londoners laughed a lot in those days, as they walked the streets assailed by the oddities of life.  I particularly relished this vignette from a contemporary observer which he quotes in support of his case:

Walking some time since in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, I followed a party of chimney-sweepers, who at the turning under a gateway, suddenly met three Chinese, apparently just arrived in London.  It was clear that they had never before seen chimney-sweepers, and it seemed that the chimney-sweepers had never, till that moment seen such figures as the Chinese.  Each party and every spectator was in a convulsion of laughter.

The laughter of Londoners was free in more senses than one:  ‘No other city was so dynamic, free and uncensored, and nowhere else were the comedies of snobbery and emulation played out and ridiculed so determinedly, writes Gatrell. The excesses of the rich, the corruption of the political elite and the absurdities of fashion (did you know that in the 1790s fashionable women of the aristocracy went bare-breasted?  I didn’t) provided rich material for the print culture that flourished in this ‘golden age of graphic satire’. The libel laws were virtually non-existent, allowing artists such as James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson and George Cruikshank to get away with outrageous depictions of a kind rarely seen since. Nothing was sacred, and no one was safe from satire and scorn, least of all the royal family.

James Gillray, 'Fashionable Contrasts', 1792

James Gillray, ‘Fashionable Contrasts’, 1792

Take, for example, James Gillray’s print Fashionable Contrasts, or The Duchess’s little Shoe yielding to the Magnitude of the Duke’s Foot published in January 1792, a few months after the marriage of Princess Frederica Charlotte of Prussia to George III’s second son Frederick, Duke of York.  The British press had been charmed by the daintiness of her tiny feet, usually clad in exquisite footwear. Copies of her tiny shoes became all the rage and fashionable ladies wore their own little shoes in an attempt to emulate her. Gillray’s print, in which the tiny feet of the Duchess of York in jewelled slippers are caught in a compromising position with the large and ungainly feet of her husband, the Duke, skewered the way in which the press and high society had slavered over celebrity.  Sales of tiny shoes collapsed as a result.

Thomas Rowlandson Miseries of London, 1808

Thomas Rowlandson, ‘Miseries of London’, 1808

London under George III and George IV was an economically and politically vibrant city with a rapidly-growing population in which a chasm separated the upper classes, who enjoyed enormous luxury, from the lower classes who lived precarious lives in poverty and squalor.  Nevertheless, in the first part of his book, Gatrell argues that the gulf that divided rich from poor was not unbridgeable.  In a detailed analysis of the streets and avenues of the West End and Covent Garden – ‘worlds apart in terms of wealth, privilege and manners’ – he reveals how the boundaries between Londoners of differing sorts were regularly crossed:

If the journeyman settled disputes with punches, the gentleman settled his with duels.  In the sexual or sporting demi-monde high and low met promiscuously.  And both found the comedies of booze, sex and body funny.

This was reflected in a hunger for graphic, explicit imagery as the new print culture expanded rapidly, the result of  rapidly growing demand from sophisticates as well as lower professionals and craftsmen. An older,tradition, rooted in classicism and epitomized by the work of William Hogarth gave way to ‘commercial products [rooted] in the realities their purchasers recognized’. Make way for the politically no-holds barred, scatological and sexually scandalous prints produced by artists like James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson and George Cruikshank.

Gatrell shows how the print culture grew to be increasingly bawdy and unrestrained.  Thomas Rowlandson’s series of London Miseries – each of which describes the vexations that a gentlemen might encounter on the streets of London – are gentle in their commentary on London’s disorder, compared to what would come towards the end of his chosen period. Soon there were debauchery prints which depicted young aristocratic clubmen and prominent political figures in compromising circumstances at table or tearing up the town. These prints feature copious vomiting, urination, erotic play and bad behaviour of every conceivable description. As Gatrell points out, such scenes were offered as comic spectacles rather than moral lessons, as they had been in Hogarth’s prints. Women were assumed to be just as hungry for sex as their male pursuers. Prostitution tended to be depicted in a comic or even sympathetic manner, rather than judgementally.

Gillray, The Wore's Last Shift,

James Gillray, ‘The Whore’s Last Shift’, 1779

A good example is Gillray’s The Whore’s Last Shift in which a woman stands in a sordid and poverty-stricken room, naked but for shoes and ragged stockings, washing her ‘last shift’ (pun intended) in a broken chamber-pot. A broadside ballad is pinned in the window recess: The comforts of Single Life. An Old Song. On the wall is a torn print, Ariadne Forsaken. Gatrell questions whether the print is contemptuous of the woman, or whether it seeks to disclose the poignancy of her plight? The answer, he suggests – as never in Hogarth – is left to the viewer.

Reading Gatrell’s account, you sense that he is describing a phenomenon that, although suppressed for long periods, has remained a rich undercurrent in English culture: a stream of satirical humour full of improprieties and bawdry. Gatrell argues that many if not all of Georgian England’s educated men – and not a few of its fine ladies – relished the bums-and-farts, no-holds-barred satirical frankness of these prints, whether the subject was life’s great sexual comedy, fashions, scandals, French revolutionaries, or the political class.

Gillray, The French Invasion, 1793

James Gillray, ‘The French Invasion’, 1793

George Cruikshank, Loyal Addresses and Radical Petitions, 1819

George Cruikshank, ‘Loyal Addresses and Radical Petitions’, 1819

Certainly, caricaturists like James Gillray and George Cruikshank took great pleasure in showing George III defiantly defecating on the French in 1793, or the Prince of Wales farting at petitioners for reform in 1819.  One print of 1785 with the inspired title His Highness in Fitz broadcast the latest royal scandal by depicting the Prince of Wales literally inside his beloved Mrs Fitzherbert. Although both are clothed and the penetration is concealed, the punning title makes it clear that they are enjoying orgasmic fits. Gillray’s Fashionable Contrasts; – or – the Duchess’s little Shoe yielding to the Magnitude of the Duke’s Foot (1792) was another example.

Treason, Richard Newton, 1798

Richard Newton, ‘Treason!!!’, 1798

An interesting question arises when looking at daring prints such as Richard Newton’s Treason!!! or his The General Sentiment, both published at the height of ruling class fears of sedition and the spread of radical ideas from the French Revolution.  Treason!!! depicts a plebian John Bull farting defiance at a poster of George III, while Prime Minister William Pitt warns him, ‘That is treason, Johnny’. The General Sentiment, from a few months earlier, shows Pitt being hanged by the neck watched by his Whig opponents, Charles Fox and Richard Sheridan who are wearing revolutionary red bonnets and gleefully wishing ‘May our heaven born minister be supported from above‘.

How did print makers get away with this sort of thing when radical groups were being suppressed, meetings raided and the participants jailed, and private conversations in taverns being spied upon, reported and prosecuted?  (Within a week of Treason!!! being published, habeas corpus was suspended).  Gatrell’s answer is that as repression intensified the print satirists became skilful at presenting ambivalent messages:

Had Treason!!! been prosecuted, the court would have been obliged to debate whether Newton himself had the seditiously ‘wicked purpose of ridiculing the king and royal family’, or whether he was merely warning against that wickedness. […] He would also have been protected by the need to read out in court an indictment in pompous legalese that would have to describe a farting figure.  This would have so punctured the law’s solemnity that prosecution would have been counterproductive.

Perhaps the most interesting question explored by Gatrell is why such irreverent and bawdy humour fall out of fashion so abruptly in the early 1820s, heralding the era of Victorian gentility and propriety.  The savagery of the satirists had grown during the Regency, reaching a climax during the divorce proceedings against Queen Caroline. Then the fizz suddenly went out of satire. Gatrell demonstrates how this was largely the result of massive royal bribery of the print publishers, but also the result of the rise of respectability. Changing cultural standards stemmed from factors such as the rise of Christian Evangelicalism, the association of libertinism with Jacobinism, the beginnings of political reform, the increasing control of the poor (who ‘have no business to laugh’), and the spread of sensibility, especially among women with a ‘rampant passion for chastity’.

As a consequence, the satirical prints of the 1820s contained not a single fart or buttock. And they gave way to the insipid cartoons of Punch, whose comic muse, Thackeray noted, had been ‘washed, combed, clothed and taught… good manners’.  In an article in the Telegraph, Gatrell observed:

Other nations think of us as an uptight people. Yet by and large our rude satirical tradition has beaten their equivalents hollow. Since the 18th century the British haven’t been as censored as most other peoples. You could and can say things here that you’d never get away with elsewhere. You could and can even mock royalty, up to a point. An American today would be hard put to it to lampoon a President as we lampoon Prince Charles, for instance.

Nowadays cartoonists self-consciously draw on Hogarth or Gillray as models. Steve Bell and Martin Rowson deploy scatology shamelessly. To be sure, the modern quest for celebrity has weakened the great tradition. Yet at its best, British satire can still blow raspberries at the powerful, censorious, and pontificating people who want to control us. By certain newspaper readers, John Major will never be thought of without his underpants outside his trousers, or David Cameron without a condom over his polished head.

Rudeness and mockery are subjects worth taking seriously. They have taught us cynicism, it’s true. But they have also taught us how to recognise and resist bullshit and cant.

Steve Bell 18.07.14

Steve Bell on Michael Gove’s first day as chief whip, 17 July 2014 (Guardian)

 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