The first time I met David Hockney

Christopher Simon Sykes recalls his encounter, as a schoolboy from Yorkshire, with a rising Bradford artist which turned into a friendship and is now the basis of a new book

I was 16 the first time I met David Hockney, and a very green young boy who had grown up in Sledmere House, a stately home on the Yorkshire Wolds, before being sent away to school in the south, first to a preparatory school in Sunningdale in Berkshire and then on to Eton College in Windsor.

It was there that, in order to escape the horrors of forced games, at which I was worse than useless, I took up pottery and developed an interest in art, which eventually led to my becoming the secretary of the school art society. The best part of this was the excuse it gave one to make trips to London to visit art exhibitions and smoke cigarettes.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

It was 1964 and the art world was fizzing. Pop Art was all the rage, represented by artists like Richard Hamilton, Peter Blake, Allen Jones and Derek Boshier, and American abstract painters like Ellsworth Kelly, Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis were also making their mark.

Simultaneously, new and exciting galleries were opening up to represent these artists, like the Robert Fraser Gallery in Duke Street, where the first show of paintings by Jean Dubuffet had taken place.

Of these premises, the trendiest was the Kasmin Gallery in Bond Street, fronted by John Kasmin, the 27-year-old son of Jewish immigrants from Poland. Kasmin had cut his teeth working for the Marlborough, the most commercially minded gallery in London, founded after the war by two Viennese émigrés, Frank Lloyd and Harry Fischer.

While employed there, as part of his brief to search for new talent, he had gone to the Young Contemporaries show, held annually at the Royal Society of British Artists and out of the extraordinary and exciting crop that were showing there he had identified the young David Hockney as the best of the bunch.

“I liked his touch,” he remembers. “He seemed to have a really original approach to painting that was between figuration and abstraction. It had cheekiness and bravado and it was lively.”

Of the paintings Hockney was exhibiting, Kasmin particularly loved Doll Boy, a picture inspired by Cliff Richard and his current hit, Living Doll, which he bought for £40. “I liked the writing, the style, the spirit... and felt very pleased with myself.”

He persuaded Hockney to bring more work into the Marlborough Gallery, but his attempts to interest his employer, Harold Fischer, in the work fell on stony ground.

“Some were particularly scruffy,” he recalls, “painted on the cheapest canvas with ordinary white household paint, often unfinished, sometimes shaped with bits tacked on. Being so enthusiastic about them, I would have them out quite often, and Mr Fischer would come in and say, “What is all this rubbish? I said you could have it here, but you were to keep it behind the curtains. Get rid of all this stuff!”

Kasmin soon realised that the only way he would have any freedom to deal in the artists he loved was to open his own gallery, and the luck that befell him was a meeting with a wealthy art-loving young aristocrat called Sheridan Blackwood, the Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, an heir to the Guinness brewing fortune.

The two went into partnership and, with the sum of £25,000 put up by Dufferin, in April, 1963, they opened the Kasmin Gallery, and it was here that David Hockney had his first one-man show, Paintings with People in, the following December.

As it happened my mother, who was very gregarious by nature, was a friend of Sheridan Dufferin, which is how I came to hang out at the Kasmin gallery on my trips to London.

For a student of my age, no place could have been more hip. The space was like a temple, with sophisticated fluorescent lighting designed to boost and balance the daylight, which came from a lantern in the roof, and electrically-operated louvered blinds. The most amazing feature, however, was the state-of-the-art flooring, consisting of a kind of hard-wearing rubbery linoleum manufactured by Pirelli, and it used to annoy Kasmin that a lot of people turned up to look at the floor rather than the pictures.

I loved the place, and as well as the cool cutting-edge abstract pictures that were usually hanging on the walls, by American artists like Frank Stella, Jules Olitski and Kenneth Noland, I particularly loved the work of David Hockney, who was the only figurative painter in Kasmin’s stable.

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 one day when Hockney himself actually walked into the gallery. With his different coloured socks and his brightly coloured clothes, his bleached hair and his big glasses he looked a proper dandy, and, being then a very conventional Etonian, I was intrigued by the fact that he was obviously gay.

I was introduced to him by Kasmin and for someone who appeared to be a bit of an exhibitionist, he came over as rather shy. As for me, I was completely in awe of his fame, the result of his constant appearance in all the colour supplements and glossy magazines.

He was, however, very sweet and his Yorkshire accent reminded me of home. After that, all I wanted was to own one of his pictures, but when I eventually 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. I think she was really worried. 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.

Over the years, apart from coming across him at various London parties, I didn’t really see much of Hockney again until one day in the summer of 2005, when my telephone rang in Yorkshire, and it was Sheridan Dufferin’s widow, Lindy, who is an artist herself, telling me that she was at the bottom of my drive with David Hockney and could she bring him to tea?

I was delighted of course and excited to meet him again and 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.

This all came about as a a result of his return to England from California in 1997 to visit his old friend, Jonathan Silver, of Salts Mill, who was dying of cancer. On his daily visits to the hospital, he had fallen in love again with the rolling hills of the Wolds, an area he remembered from his boyhood, when he used to take work on local farms during the harvest.

David was also very funny. He had, for example, developed an obsession with the local newspaper, the Driffield Times, and its lurid headlines which would he would see on posters outside post offices or sweetshops in the local villages, headlines like DRIFFIELD STEAM ROLLER HORROR, HUMAN EAR FOUND IN YORKS CAR, SEX TRADE MOVES TO LEAFY SUBURBS 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.”

This was the beginning of a new friendship, and I have since spent many happy hours in his company, always marvelling at his ability to refresh one with his enthusiasm. I have never known anyone so engaged in his work and in the exploration of all the possibilities it throws out. Recently his child-like excitement at discovering what he can achieve firstly on his IPhone and latterly on his IPad has been a wonder to behold.

“Turner would definitely have used one of these if they’d been around then,” he says breathlessly. Then there are the extraordinary films, trips down leafy lanes during the different seasons, recorded on a series of nine high-definition video cameras, and more recently a colourful musical, starring members of the Royal Ballet and filmed in his colossal studio in Bridlington. He showed these recently to friends in Los Angeles.

“I had to point out to them,” he said with a chuckle, “that Hollywood now has a new rival in Bridlywood.”

Christopher Simon Sykes is giving an illustrated talk about his new biography of David Hockney at Salts Mill, Saltaire, tomorrow, 3pm. Admission free, tickets 01274 521163.

Hockney: A Rake’s Progress. Random House £24.99. To order a copy through the Yorkshire Post Bookshop call 0800 0153232 or online at Postage and packing costs £2.75.