Friday, 24 February 2012

My neighbour David Hockney

As a major retrospective of his landscapes opens at the Royal Academy, Christopher Simon Sykes looks back on a lifelong friendship with the man who has changed the way we look at the world…

Written by Christopher Simon Sykes
I first met David Hockney in 1964, when I was a schoolboy, very green, having spent my entire childhood in the wilds of Yorkshire. I was up from Eton for a day in London. Art was my first love in those days, and since my mother was friends with Sheridan Dufferin, the co-owner of the Kasmin Gallery, then the trendy new gallery in Bond Street, on these occasional trips up to town I used to go and hang out there.

Kasmin represented Hockney, and I was fascinated by his paintings, with their childish figures and graffiti-like use of letters and words on the canvas. I was even more intrigued when, during one of my visits to the gallery, Hockney walked in. With his different-coloured socks and his brightly coloured clothes, his bleached hair and his big glasses, he certainly stood out from the crowd. I was introduced to him by Kasmin and he was very sweet and Yorkshire. After that, all I wanted was to own one of his pictures, but when I asked my mother if she would buy me one, she thought I'd gone mad. It was £200 – a fortune then – but more to the point, it was of Two Men Having A Shower. Poor Mum. In the end she paid a fiver for an etching called Man, which was of a man's head perched on two enormous legs. It was the first work of art I ever owned.

Key-12Over the years, apart from coming across him at London parties, I didn't see much of David Hockney again until one day in the summer of 2005, my telephone rang in Yorkshire. It was Sheridan Dufferin's widow, Lindy, telling me that she was at the bottom of my drive with Hockney and could she bring him to tea? I was delighted and excited to meet him again. He hardly drew breath during the next hour as he enthused about the beauty of the Yorkshire Wolds and his excitement at discovering the joys of painting landscape again. He was also very funny.

He had, for example, developed an obsession with the local newspaper, the Driffield Times, and its lurid headlines, which he would see on posters outside post offices or sweet shops in the local villages, headlines such as 'Driffield Steam Roller Horror'; 'Human Ear Found In Yorks Car' and, most sinister of all, considering you could wait all day just to see one car in most of these villages, 'Mayhem On The Streets Feared'.

'We've renamed the Driffield Times,' he told us, 'The News Of The Wolds.'

Over the next couple of years I got to know Hockney much better. He was totally involved in painting the Wolds and had become a familiar figure in the locality, working at his easel en plein air in all weathers, sometimes dressed in a paintsplattered suit and white cloth cap, other times in a long coat and floppy hat, which gave him a Cezannish air.

When I first went to watch him paint, he was working on large watercolours, painted on several sheets of paper. Then it was oils on four, six or eight canvases, finally graduating to the 50 on which the mighty Bigger Trees Near Warter is painted. He was up at dawn and worked till dark, often leaving his much younger assistant, Jean-Pierre, known as 'the only Parisien in Bridlington', exhausted. He has always been ahead of the curve. Where once he would have reached for his sketch pad to capture whatever had taken his eye with pencil and paper, now he keeps his iPad on the bedside table, using all the colours of the palette.

I have continued to  nd him inspiring and, encouraged by the fact that he had read and enjoyed a book I had recently written about my family home, decided to ask if I could write a new biography of him, the last one having appeared over 20 years ago. I knew his life would make a great story. To begin with there was his fascinating childhood spent in wartime Bradford against a background of great struggle, owing to his father, Kenneth, being a conscientious objector – the family were almost wiped out by a bomb.

Both of Hockney's parents were firmly rooted in lower-middle-class Bradford, and were intelligent individuals. His father, though diminutive (5ft 4in) was a flamboyant dresser, took a life-long interest in museums and concerts and was a maverick advocate of various unpopular causes; communism, vegetarianism and anti-smoking among them. In recent years Hockney has become as vehemently in favour of smoking as his father was against it – believing that we have become a nanny state.

His acceptance at Bradford Art College and then the Royal College Of Art, found himself among the rebellious  rst generation of young post-war 1960s artists. From there followed his growing acceptance of his sexuality at a time when he could have gone to prison for being a homosexual, and his courageous use of his art as propaganda for the cause, followed by his extraordinary rise to fame and remarkable creativity against the background of his life in Swinging London, Gay California and Bohemian Paris.

a-closer-winter-tunnelTrying to persuade him to agree to the book was no easy task. When we had conversations about it they always ended with the words 'I'll let you know in a couple of weeks' or 'I haven't quite made up my mind'. Then came the terrible day that he turned up to paint his favourite clump of trees, which he was painting season by season, only to  nd that it had been felled. When I called him to commiserate, he was in a black mood and as good as told me to forget my project.

I was not prepared to give up, however, and after a few more months of procrastination I went to him and said that I had to get on with my life, so could he tell me Yes or No. At which point, to my amazement, he said, 'All right, you can do it then'. I got up and kissed him three times. 'That's a Ma a kiss,' I said, 'to seal the deal.'

While I was writing the book, we had our ups and downs, and on the day I  nally presented him with a copy, I was in a state of some nervousness. He had always said he would never read it and when I handed him a copy his only comment on the back cover 1960s portrait was: 'That bloody gold lamé jacket.'

The next morning I was sitting eating my breakfast when the telephone rang. He had read it in one sitting. 'There are a couple of mistakes.' I waited with bated breath. 'If you're going to Ilkley Moor, for example, the train doesn't go from Leeds Station, it's from the Bradford Forster...', but by that time I was just breathing a heavy sigh of relief.

David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture is at the Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly W1 until 9 April: 020-7300 8000, www.royalacademy.co.uk

Hockney: The Biography by Christopher Simon Sykes is published by Century, £25.

AN iPAD MASTERPIECE

The iPad used by David Hockney is unlike any other gadget you'll ever try. Truly revolutionary, inspiring, useful, it becomes indispensable.

Pah! you may say – you have everything you need – computer, television, books; why, even your own pen and pencil, and stationery.

Fair points, but by the time Apple launched the iPad 2 last year, the fi rst-generation iPad was being used by over 15 million people worldwide. All of whom owned televisions. And pencils. So why? In technical parlance, it's all about the 'user-interface', in human that's ease of use. You operate it with your fi ngers. No mouse, no keyboard, it responds to the heat in your fi ngertips. You tap and stroke it to choose an 'App'. Apps are programs that let you do a variety of things on an iPad. Go online to the App store, choose ones you like, click 'download' and it lands on your iPad.

You could read a newspaper on it, run a cookery tutorial while you cook dinner, listen to music, access the internet and your emails with a tap. And now, you can create masterpieces on them.

David Hockney uses the Brushes App, £5.49. With this, your iPad is a canvas, your fingers are brushes. Start from scratch and build up layers as you would a watercolour, using a hue/saturation wheel. Select the brush type and your fingertip recreates realistic brushstrokes. Make any mistakes and undo or redo them as you like. Zoom in by pinching the screen, erase, rearrange layers you build up or merge them, and copy them over to new paintings. The only thing holding you back will be your artistic ability, not your technological know-how. And you won't have to clean your brushes afterwards.

Lena Dunkin

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