Weekend interview: The artist David Hockney

Back in 1955, a young artist exhibited a painting at an art fair in Leeds. It was called Portrait of my father, and a visitor to the show offered him £10 for it '“ a tidy enough sum in those days. The artist was 18 years old. But before he agreed to part company with his canvas, he told the potential buyer that he had to 'ask my dad, first'.

David Hockney in front of The Queen's Window, a new stained glass window at Westminster Abbey he designed and which was created by Barley Studio York, is revealed for the first time. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Wednesday September 26, 2018. The window - the artist's first work in stained glass - reflects the Queen's love for and connection with the countryside. See PA story ARTS Hockney. Photo credit should read: Victoria Jones/PA Wire

When the lad’s parent, Kenneth, was consulted, the reply was pretty terse – and a typically Yorkshire response: “Lad, you can always do another!” And so the painting changed hands. Today, it would probably fetch millions if it was sold at auction. Only a month or so ago, one of his paintings sold at Christie’s in New York for nearly $30 (£22m) million. The signature on that early portrait (his signature today is a curious little squiggle) is that of David Hockney, the man who, in a recent poll was voted, out of 1,000 names, “the most influential British artist of all time”.

David Hockney was born and raised in Bradford (where a major gallery at the university is named after him), turned 81 earlier this year, and is a man of many facets and talents. His reputation as one of the finest living artists is unquestioned. He is a long-time smoker and at the recent Critics’ Circle Awards lunch, given in his honour and to celebrate his Outstanding Contribution to the Arts, the organisers made sure that Hockney was seated (as he had requested) right next to the patio doors onto the broad gardens of the Arts Club in Chelsea, so that he could pop out for a ciggie. And they also arranged for a packet of them to be put by his right hand on the top table. That was his only other request on the day. Hockney was happy.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

There was a famous occasion, a couple of years back, when he was giving a press conference at York Art Gallery – which was showing his magnificent Bigger Trees near Warter – where he moved all the guests out onto the steps of the building so that he could make his remarks and have a smoke at the same time. He is, he says, “very gratified indeed” that the gallery now sells a postcard of that particular painting, and “even more gratified” to learn that it is one of their bestsellers.

Buying that postcard is probably the nearest that most of us will ever come to owning a David Hockney painting. There must have been a few folk in Pocklington, a couple of years back, who strolled past a rather eccentric-looking gentleman busy at his easel and wondered what he was up to. They lost the chance of chatting to David Hockney.

That painting, originally seen at the Royal Academy, is now one of the great prizes of the Tate. How did he achieve it? “I painted it without a ladder – because it is 15 separate canvases in all. Put together, they are 15 ft by 40 ft,” he says.

He has refused a knighthood on what is said to be several occasions. He has, however, an Order of Merit to put after his name – as well as many honorary titles and doctorates. Hockney is very much his own man. At the lunch (where he insisted on shaking the hand of every guest as he left after spending over three hours of conviviality) he arrived wearing blue sneakers, a white shirt with a vivid red and white tie, and a black jacket with a green knitted waistcoat. He wore round “Harry Potter-style” glasses, which had strong yellow frames and his white cloth cap came off when he ate. The artist may be leaning on a discrete black cane these days, but you would most certainly not miss him in a crowd.

He has painted in oil, in watercolour and acrylics. He is a superb photographer and was an early fan of the Polaroid camera. He has designed interiors (and exteriors) for homes, and, most importantly, he is a hearty advocate of pen and paper, and is contemptuous of those in art schools who have moved on from this method of teaching.

“Teaching people to draw is teaching people to look”, he says firmly. “I am deeply disappointed that today’s young students do not get those vital lessons, these basic skills.” Disrespect or ignorance of the building blocks of art clearly irritates him beyond belief. He has designed for the stage (drama, opera and ballet), he has illustrated books, and he is an adept print-maker. He was recently in London at the dedication of a magnificent stained glass window he designed. It is now one of the must-see features of Westminster Abbey. It features “the flowers of the hawthorn, which I always loved ever since I first saw it in Yorkshire. Especially in the light we have up there. I was taken to a farm on the way to Scarborough when I was a small boy, and even then I recognised that the light was something very special. It stretches the eyeballs, and it defines many of the things that I love about Yorkshire. In that window, I hope that I’ve given a sense of joy, giving people an awareness of nature and of colour.” He’d like to do more with stained glass – Yorkshire churches, take note.

He is also a generous man – he could have increased his fortune even further, but he chose instead to donate many of his paintings to Salt’s Mill in Saltaire when they were opening up their remarkable premises. And he loves re-telling the story of his visit when he overheard an elderly lady looking at his work, and saying (as she shook her head) “Huh! My four year-old granddaughter could have done better!” The lady was quietly taken to one side and told that she had been introduced to the artist who had painted the work that she had scorned. “Well”, she said, “he seems to be a very nice young man, I’ll give you that. But… my granddaughter could still do better!” Hockney has a talent for humorous self-deprecation.

He also has a talent for embracing the new. He reveals that he is currently “experimenting with the possibility of using 3D in painting”. He then produces a couple of meticulous prints on card, each about the size of the lid of a show-box, each of which has tiny seated figures before large screens and windows. The full-size pieces “all about perspective, really”, will appear “at a travelling exhibition in Washington, Peking and Rome in 2020,” he says.

“I make no distinction between art and science, art and technology, each should serve the other.” Hockney isn’t a secretive creative, he’s one who keeps on asking questions. He is endlessly fascinated by “that optical thing”, as he puts it.

He wonders why it is that “in early Chinese, Persian and Indian art, there are no shadows? None at all, But everything has them. So, I’m going to Normandy to look at the Bayeux Tapestry – there again, you see, no shadows. I first saw it in 1967, but I want to refresh my memory. Why did they do it in the way that they did? And when did they start putting shadows into paintings and drawings, when did they first occur? I think that is a good question…”

He has moved, apparently seamlessly, from working in “a studio in a converted B&B in Bridlington” to much more grand premises in Los Angeles. As a relaxation he reads every day “in fact, I am reading more, at my age, than I have ever done in my life” And he also enjoys revisiting old movies: “I love watching Laurel and Hardy – it’s their sense of audacity and of mischievousness!” He recalls that his dad used to take him to the cinema so much when he was a child that he realised that he was “raised in both Bradford and Hollywood”.

“I don’t want to paint things that I am not proud of. I am still excited and thrilled by spaces. And I’m also thrilled to be working,” he says.

There is a slight pause and he adds with a lovely twinkle in his eye: “and that is what I shall continue to do!” His father’s early observation that: “You can always do another”, has clearly been his lifelong work ethic. And long may that continue.