Hockney’s California love life in his early sketches 1963-77

This exhibition of Hockney's early sketches, from his time in California as a young gay man, reveal a delicate intimacy.


This exhibtion of Hockney’s early sketches, from his time in California as a young gay man, reveal the delicate intimacies shared between the artist and friends on lazy sunny afternoons.

Above: David Hockney Vichy Water and ‘Howards End,’ Carennac 1970 Ink on paper 35.56 x 43.2 cm (14 x 17 Inches) © David Hockney

David Hockney, Love Life, Drawings 1963 to 1977 (Holburne Museum, Bath, ends 18 September 2022) collects drawings from the beginning of the stellar career of David Hockney (b. 1937). In the 1960s, Hockney was the ultimate art star of the British Pop Art movement. His shock of blonde hair and colourful-rim spectacles became a familiar sight in newspaper colour supplements and television interviews.

This exhibition brings out the tender, private side of Hockney in 37 drawings. We follow him from Swinging London, to California, across France and to Egypt and Morocco. Hockney went straight from graduating from a fine-art course in the Royal College of Art (in 1962) to the international art world. He sold enough prints to pay for a year of hedonism and hard work in California. Hockney’s escalating prices and fame gave him the artistic and personal freedom he craved.

David Hockney Ossie Wearing a Fairisle Sweater 1970 Colored pencil on paper 43.18 x 35.56 cm (17 x 14 Inches) © David Hockney Photo Credit: Fabrice Giber

Hockney found the situation for him, as a gay man, much freer in certain parts of California than in Britain, where homosexual acts were still illegal in the early 1960s. These drawings reflect that. There are drawings of various lovers, some asleep. Hockney’s preferred scenario was nubile young men lying face down on beds, bared bottoms facing up. These are classic drawings of desire and gay liberation.

Hockney’s signature style was the single ink outlines. It is proof of Hockney’s skill, because this is a very demanding drawing styles, which cannot be corrected. A favourite of mine was a picture of drawing implements in a jar, the shading done both freehand and with ruled cross-hatching. Hockney was a fine technician with a wide range of drawing styles. Any art student or budding artist is advised to visit this exhibition.

In October 1963, the young art star was commissioned by The Sunday Times to travel around Egypt. for three weeks in different cities, producing drawings for a feature. He made a drawing of glasses and a bottle with ants, a matchbook on the table inscribed in Arabic. The feature never appeared but Hockney’s later illustrations for Cavafy’s poems set in Alexandria.

In later drawings, such as 1059 Balboa Blvd. (1967), Hockney introduced colour pencil, applied sparingly. The sky is a slab of plain cerulean blue and there is a spray of rich green palm leaves. We get a slice of Pop aesthetic, with ruled lines and bold signage, with strong colour used to describe modernist buildings. Hockney made this style and medium his own, with no other artist using the colour pencil more effectively in fine art.

David Hockney 1059 Balboa Blvd. 1967 Colored pencil on paper 35.56 x 45.1 cm (14 x 17.75 Inches) © David Hockney

Hockney was an observant and patient portraitist from an early age. There are portraits of fashion designers Ossie Clark and Celia Birtwell. The two designers were a couple and subject of the famous double portrait Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1970-1), which included their cat. It is the classic image of the Baby Boomers coming of age in an era of chromium-plated tubular chairs, shagpile rugs and casual-sophisticated lifestyle. The drawing Ossie Wearing a Fairisle Sweater (1970) shows the care and precision taken on the face, along with slashing coloured pencil marks, blending on the clothes.

The portraits of Henry Geldzahler, curator of modern art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, remind us of Hockney’s connections with tastemakers of the period. The portrait of poets Auden and Stephen Spender, writer J.B. Priestley and Christopher Isherwood’s apartment likewise remind us of Hockney’s access to the luminaries of high culture. The superb 1975 full-figure portrait of R.B. Kitaj lounging on a bench outside the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna came about due to the lasting friendship between the artists.

The drawings of hotels in France are a definite turn away from pop culture and Americana. Views through hotel windows – and one of classical formal French garden – show an appreciation of the more refined pleasures of life.

More homely subjects include still-lifes of tulips and tables. One of the fullest drawings is Vichy Water and ‘Howards End,’ Carennac (1970), which shows a table with pot, cup, glass, bottle of Vichy water and a paperback copy of a novel. It is redolent of lazy afternoons spent with friends on holiday. Later drawings of spring onions, leeks and his father show an attachment to elements of Hockney’s Yorkshire past.

For those who have grown up with Hockney as “the iPad artist”, this display of delicate, dextrous and intimate drawings will come as a revelation.

David Hockney Love Life Drawings 1963 to 1977 is at Holburne Museum, Bath, from May 27 September 18

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