Hockney: The Biography, Volume 1, 1937-1975 by Christopher Simon Sykes

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Hockney: The Biography, Volume 1, 1937-1975 by Christopher Simon Sykes

Category: Art
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A richly illustrated biography of the pioneering British artist, covering his first 38 years.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 363 Date: November 2011
Publisher: Century
ISBN: 9781846057083

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As one of the major names of British twentieth century art, David Hockney has always been a larger than life figure. Published to coincide with his 75th birthday, this is the first volume of a biography which tells his story up to 1975.

As the sub-title makes clear, this book is a life and not merely a study of his art. Nevertheless, the emphasis is naturally in part on his career and development as an artist. We begin with the marriage of his parents and family life in Bradford, and a lucky escape they had during a bombing raid on the town in 1940 when he was aged three and their house was miraculously the only one which did not have its roof damaged or its windows broken.

The son of free-thinking parents, Hockney was quite a character and something of an anarchist at school, frustrated at not being allowed to drop subjects which he hated and concentrate wholeheartedly on the art for which he had showed such talent at an early age. Outspokenly gay in a more censorious age which preferred not to acknowledge such things, he scandalised the more straitlaced around him by dyeing his hair bright blonde. It comes as no surprise to learn that he was a fully committed pacifist, involved with CND and the first of the Aldermaston marches in 1958. Much of his early work consisted of prints, an economic necessity as he was so broke at the time that he had to resort to free materials in the print department at the Royal College of Art. Subsequent success furnished him with the means to equip himself with canvas and paints.

After becoming disenchanted with Britain, even during the swinging sixties, in 1966 he went to settle in the United States. As he approached Los Angeles by art, he became more excited at what he saw below him, especially blue swimming pools – soon to become a recurring theme in his work - all over the place. Returning to London two years later, he found that despite a certain amount of liberalisation and the passing of the Sexual Offences Act, the prevailing atmosphere was still fairly repressive, and he fell foul of a zealous customs officer at Heathrow who took one look at his luggage and confiscated his collection of American magazines on the grounds that they were pornographic. After he had prepared for a lengthy court case and enlisted big guns in the art world to come to his aid, the then Home Secretary, James Callaghan, decided that there were more pressing problems than to prosecute an artist for importing near-the-knuckle mags for his own work, and the materials were returned to him, albeit without apology. The incident made him something of a folk hero among radicals and the new left.

There are detailed accounts and discussions of his major paintings and drawings, notably the iconic 'Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy', the recently married fashion designer, his wife and their cat at their London home with an open window and balcony in the background, and his swimming pool paintings executed in America. Various friendships are recounted in some detail, and from these it is evident that Hockney was a born survivor while several others, Ossie Clark being one of them, were less fortunate. The boy whose house was unscathed by the wartime bombing has continued to live under a lucky star.

This is a lively account of a man who has lived a colourful and cosmopolitan life, yet never completely lost touch with his Bradford roots. Readers looking for outlandish stories which might not have made it into print in a mass circulation volume some years ago will not be disappointed. There are extracts from his letters, archives and notebooks, the diaries of his mother Laura, and interviews with family and friends. Little detail of his personal and professional life is omitted. I would take issue with the author’s comment on post-Industrial Revolution art in Britain and the Pre-Raphaelites William Blake and Samuel Palmer (radicals they may have been, but they lived and worked in an earlier age), but that’s only a minor point.

It ends at 1975 as it recounts the success of his series of prints based on Hogarth’s 'The Rake’s Progress'. In the final paragraph it notes that at that stage of his career his willingness to experiment with new ideas was undimmed, and that ahead lay a time of great excitement. Readers who relish this magnificently-presented first volume will eagerly await number two for a continuation of the story.

This book came to the Bookbag courtesy of the Ilkley Literature Festival where Christopher Sykes is appearing on 8 October 2012.

If this book appeals then you might also appreciate Modernism: The Lure of Heresy - From Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond by Peter Gay.

Buy Hockney: The Biography, Volume 1, 1937-1975 by Christopher Simon Sykes at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Hockney: The Biography, Volume 1, 1937-1975 by Christopher Simon Sykes at Amazon.co.uk.

Buy Hockney: The Biography, Volume 1, 1937-1975 by Christopher Simon Sykes at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Hockney: The Biography, Volume 1, 1937-1975 by Christopher Simon Sykes at Amazon.com.


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