Brid’s bigger splash

Today’s launch of the first English Tourism Week promotes David Hockney as an incomparable Yorkshire brand. Stephen McClarence investigates if there’s a local dividend from the painter’s popularity.

It’s a cold afternoon in Bridlington and I’m in the tourist information centre talking to assistant Jo Canham. As we discuss local links between art and tourism, a delivery man comes in with a parcel of brochures. “Who’s that you’re talking about?” he asks. “Is it Mr Hockney?”

It certainly is Mr Hockney – and it’s not just us who are talking about him. Thanks to the phenomenal success of A Bigger Picture, his blockbuster exhibition at London’s Royal Academy of Arts, the Yorkshire tourism industry is gearing itself up for a significant “dividend”.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Interest in the exhibition, the theory goes, will bring visitors flocking to Bridlington, where he has a home and studio, and the Yorkshire Wolds, which he has so comprehensively and colourfully painted. The area has traditionally played second fiddle in tourism terms to the Dales and Moors; now all the Wolds a stage.

“Bridlington is one of the most talked-about destinations in the UK right now, thanks to the Hockney exhibition,” says Andrew Denton of Welcome to Yorkshire, the region’s tourist authority, which hopes to have a specially created Hockney Trail out by the end of this month.

Brid’s mayor, Cyril Marsburg, is similarly upbeat. “We are getting exposure through Hockney all the time and we are already receiving visitors who want to see where he did his paintings,” he says. “I think we are going to have a very good year. All my relatives and friends down south are talking about it.”

They would be. The RA reports record crowds for the exhibition, has issued extra tickets (at £14 a throw) and is opening until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays to cope with demand. Piccadilly buzzes with talk of Thixendale and Garrowby Hill and other prime Hockney sites.

Whether this Hockneymania will bring coachloads of arty tourists surging through the Wolds ticking off picture locations as they go is another matter. The artist may have defined East Yorkshire in the way that Constable defined Suffolk and Canaletto defined Venice.

Today’s start of the first English Tourism Week, a celebration of the nation’s holiday potential, hypes Hockney as an incomparable Yorkshire “brand”. But can his “brand” ever rival the tried-and-tested short-cuts to tourism success – film and TV links? Is there a future in Art-Beat Country or All Pictures Great and Small Country?

It’s hard to tell ahead of the holiday season, which traditionally starts at Easter, when coincidentally the exhibition closes. And for many southerners a holiday in “The North” would be a more challenging choice than one across the Channel: “Shall we do Cumbria rather than Umbria this year, darling? And we ought to fit in Bridlington, just to see what Hockney sees in it.” Even with summer so far ahead, though, Wolds hoteliers report healthy interest after all the media coverage of the exhibition and the many newspaper travel articles pegged to it. At Wold Newton, a few miles inland between Bridlington and Filey, Katrina Gray has had a dozen exhibition-related enquiries at Wold Cottage, the country house B&B she runs with her husband Derek. “There were people here last week who’d come to see the snowdrops at Burton Agnes Hall,” she says. “But they also wanted to go down Woldgate to see where Hockney painted.”

In Bridlington, Tim Norman, director of the 18-bedroom Royal Hotel, enthuses about the higher profile which the artist has given the town. “I’m not aware of any specific bookings as a result of the exhibition, but I do know it’s created a lot more interest in the area,” he says. The Royal, near the Spa, has advertised in the RA’s magazine, though its advert in Bridlington’s own holiday brochure mentions its “ground floor rooms and mobility scooter docking station” – selling points with the resort’s more traditional clientele, lured by its flatness. Norman adds that Hockney “lives literally just around the corner” and books guests into the Royal when he has large house parties. Bohemian Brid thrives.

Travel companies have been quick off the mark. Scoot, a York-based cycling holiday company, is offering a four-night Hockney’s Bigger Ride trip round places featured in the pictures. It’s inspired, says director Cai Mallett, by the artist’s own boyhood explorations of the Wolds by bike in the 1950s, when he was doing a summer job stooking corn on a farm. Other companies are more cavalier with their geography. One uses Hockney landscapes as a come-on for cottage holidays near Pickering. Another suggests breaks including fish and chips in Whitby and trips on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway.

They echo a rumoured journalists’ day-trip from London, which planned to take in Bridlington, the Wolds and Saltaire, near Bradford, where Salts Mill houses the world’s biggest private collection of Hockneys. Then someone checked the distances involved. Very big, Yorkshire.

Salts Mill itself reports increased footfall since the RA show, not least to see Hockney’s 20 ft long photomontage The 25 Big Trees between Bridlington School and Morrisons Supermarket on Bessingby Road in the Semi-Egyptian Style, a title almost as long as the picture itself.

I go to pay my respects to the 25 trees during my cold afternoon in Brid. Walking past them is like walking through a work of art. Suddenly there seem to be potential pictures everywhere. Across the road is a small plantation of trees. All those trunks and branches waiting to be Hockneyed! The pictures have changed perceptions.

“ A friend who’s a farmer’s wife went to the exhibition and says it’s made her look at the hedgerows and the growing crops in a new way,” says Katrina Gray at Wold Cottage. “We live here in the Wolds but we don’t always appreciate the colour changes. The crops change colour when they’re growing.”

Even so, tourists might be surprised to discover that the Wolds are more subtly coloured than Hockney’s dazzlingly bright pictures suggest. The area’s charm is its big-skied lyricism, its long, low hills, copses of trees and straggling hedges, its sense of undiscovered remoteness, its lack of people – the qualities which Hockney himself admires and which, ironically, might be threatened if visitors flock in.

Not all publicity is a benefit. Interest in Hockney’s locations in Woldgate, a road running out of Bridlington, has highlighted regular fly-tipping there. This may not help tourism, unless Hockney goes to paint the abandoned tyres and gas canisters.

I walk across to Brid’s Old Town where Diane Davison, chairman of the Old Town Association, runs the Georgian Tea Rooms. “Whenever Hockney appears in the press or on TV he talks about the area fondly,” she says. “He always mentions Bridlington and Bridlington very much likes to have him here, though he’s a very private person. The town needs a boost generally and tourism helps. And this part of the town definitely attracts people interested in history, art and architecture.”

They’re just the sort of people who have packed the Hockney exhibition, in the face of often critical reviews in the national press. Brian Sewell’s diatribe in the London Evening Standard predictably wins the prize for splenetic outrage: “My predominant response... is ‘Why?’ Why is there so much of it? Why is so much of it so big, so towering, so vast, so overblown and corpulent? Why is it so repetitive? Why is everything so unreally bright, so garish, discordant, raw and Romany? Why is the brushwork so careless, crude and coarse?”

Why then, Sewell might also ask, is the exhibition so popular? Can it be that Hockney’s pastoral visions are the artistic equivalent of a warm bath, a series of feel-good “comfort canvases” to soothe us in grim economic times?

I sensed this last year when Bigger Trees Near Warter, one of Hockney’s vast woodland canvases, broke attendance records at the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull (as well as York and Bradford). Some visitors were, like me, puzzled by the picture. They were expecting to be awed and they weren’t; what had looked stunning in small magazine reproductions looked in reality like a theatre backdrop.

More visitors, however, appeared to have lapsed into a meditative state, lulled by the artist’s undemanding vision of a serene pastoral world. A few wind chimes and a bit of whale music and galleries could launch Hockney Therapy sessions.

Back at Brid tourist information centre, Jo Canham reports visitors showing plenty of interest in Hockneyland, though, as yet, no-one has said they’ve come on a specific pilgrimage. “Everybody talks about him and wants to know where he lives,” she says (she doesn’t tell them). “But I don’t think the furore has hit Bridlington yet.”

The Royal Academy of Arts exhibition in London, David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture, runs until April 9.