It was where his career began, but it’s taken until his 80th birthday for a dedicated David Hockney gallery to open in Bradford. Sarah Freeman gets a sneak preview.
No one quite knew whether the man himself would make the official preview. David Hockney hadn’t officially declined the invitation to the opening of the first dedicated galleries to his work in his home city of Bradford, but word had it he was still at home in Los Angeles.
Hockney isn’t a man who likes to be pinned down and often pops up at these dos when least expected, but even if he didn’t make an appearance among the crowds at Cartwright Hall, his presence was everywhere.
It was there in the black and white photographs of him at work through the years, it was there in his early paintings of terraced houses and launderettes and it was there in the recreation of his studio which occupies one end of the new galleries.
“Great isn’t it?,” says Jill Iredale, curator at Cartwright Hall who is largely responsible for bringing Hockney home to Bradford. “When we were researching what this space should be one things that kept coming up was that people really wanted to know how his work was made.
“That’s something you don’t tend to see. Galleries display a particular collection, but the work can often seem far removed from the artist who created it. We wanted to do something a little different.
“Hockney has had the same studios in London and Los Angeles for years and even when he returned to Bridlington at the turn of the millennium and began painting in the attic of his mother’s old house, the space had a similar feel.
“There are more brushes, paint tubes and jam jars than he could probably ever use, the walls are covered with whatever project he is currently working on and scattered about the floor are white cardboard models of whichever gallery is about to exhibit his work with miniature pictures of his paintings laid out.”
There is also, always a comfortable armchair. Hockney isn’t one of those artists who believes it is necessary to suffer for your art. He likes his home comforts and he likes to be surrounded by the familiar.
“I was lucky enough to get a travel grant to go see David in Los Angeles,” adds Jill, who admits realising the vision for dedicated gallery space to Bradford’s famous son has been a labour of love. “Because he is now quite deaf, we were left on our own so there wasn’t any other distraction and he couldn’t have been more supportive about what we are trying to do here.”
Much of the work on display already belonged in the Bradford art collection, but Hockney has also opened up his private family albums, so now one corner features holiday snaps of him and his parents enjoying a boat trip across Lake Windermere and there are others of his beloved dogs Stanley and Boodgie.
“David Hockney is one of Britain’s most popular artists and I think that’s because people identify with him,” says Jill. “He has achieved so much in terms of his art, but there is also a down to earth quality about him that makes that work so accessible.
“These galleries will hopefully be that last piece of the jigsaw because while people associate Hockney with Yorkshire and with the Wolds in particular his link to Bradford is often overlooked.”
So while the Cartwright Hall galleries do include one of Hockney’s trademark swimming pool paintings, hung on a wall painted in a particularly striking Farrow and Ball pink and some of his more recent works created on an iPad, the emphasis is on his early years where he injected life into the otherwise soot-clad landscape of West Yorkshire.
“When he went to Bradford School of Art in the 1950s most of the other students were destined to become commercial sign writers,” says Jill. “Painting wasn’t seen as a viable career, but Hockney was very determined. He would stay late in the evening to attend life drawing classes and he spent those four years at college really learning his technique.
“He would push a pram, filled with art materials, around the streets and a lot of that early work captures ordinary Bradford, one populated by women in headscarves. By the time he left for London at the age of 22 he was really quite accomplished and this is our chance to say, ‘look he really can draw’.”
Born on July 9, 1937 Hockney was the fourth of five children. His father, Kenneth, was a clerk, his mother, Laura, worked in a draper’s shop, but both believed in the power of art and education to transform lives. Kenneth, in particular, also raised his children not to pay too much notice of other people’s opinion, which may explain Hockney’s independence of mind and his now legendary dress sense, which gets its own display within the new gallery.
“Even now at the age of 80, if you asked people to describe Hockney they would probably say he had blond hair and round black glasses,” says Jill. “It was a look which came about entirely by chance. On his first trip to New York in 1961 he and two friends were watching television when an advertisement for Clariol hair dye came on asking, ‘Is it true blondes have more fun?’
“The three friends thought they would find out and were blonde by the end of the evening. For David it was a look that stuck. He did cut a striking figure in both the British and US art scenes, but it wasn’t affected. Even when he was at college in Bradford he stood out. He somehow has always had a knack for combining bright colours, pattern and smart tailoring in a way that doesn’t obviously make sense, but somehow works.”
Hockney once said that in order to learn to draw you have to look closely and in the hope of inspiring the next generation of artists, dotted around the gallery are peep holes which children can look through to see moving images inspired by his life and work.
“We were really conscious that this gallery should be open to everyone, from youngsters getting their first introduction to Hockney to lifelong fans of his work,” says Jill. “We have already had calls from overseas visitors saying ‘We saw a Hockney exhibition in London, what’s different about Cartwright Hall?’ Fortunately, the answer is, ‘A lot’.
“This gallery hopefully complements the collection of Hockney’s later works which are held just down the road at Salts Mill and will give people a flavour of the man as well as his craft.”
The opening of the new gallery at Cartwright Hall came after The Hepworth Wakefield was named Arts Fund Museum of the Year. Opened in 2011 and housing a permanent collection of work by Wakefield-born sculptor Barbara Hepworth, alongside contemporary artists, the prize comes with a £100,000 cheque and a big helping of kudos.
“It does feel like a good time for art in Yorkshire,” says Jill. “We’ve got the three Hs, Hepworth, Hockney and Henry Moore. That’s surely ripe for a VisitBritain campaign.”
She might just be onto something.
To mark the artist’s 80th birthday on Sunday there will be a series of Hockney-inspired free events at Cartwright Hall and a vintage bus will also take visitors from the museum to Salts Mill which holds an extensive collection of Hockney paintings. For more details go to bradfordmuseums.org