‘Who would ever have thought,’ asked David Hockney, ‘that drawing would return via the telephone?’ It is a typical Hockney point, wry, unexpected, connecting high-tech with low — and in this case undeniably true. Lately he has taken to drawing on his iPhone, with results that are luminous, and wonderfully free in draughtsmanship. ‘I must admit,’ he says, ‘that the iPhone technique took me quite a while to develop — I do them mostly with my thumb. But then I realised that it had marvellous advantages. It makes you bold, and I thought that was very good.’
It is characteristic of Hockney to be carried away by enthusiasms and to do the unexpected (the iPhone as a favoured medium for a world-famous artist in his early seventies is certainly that). A remarkable film to be broadcast next week on BBC1 — David Hockney: A Bigger Picture, directed by Bruno Wollheim — follows him over the last three years, as he is carrying out one of the most startling diversions in his long career.
After decades in Los Angeles, in recent years Hockney has been living in Bridlington, a resort on the east coast of Yorkshire. He occupies a spacious villa just off the front — perhaps the seaside retreat of a wealthy Leeds or Bradford family between the wars. There, with his partner John Fitzherbert, who runs the house, and his assistant — a French accordion player named Jean-Pierre Gonçalves de Lima — Hockney leads, as he puts it, ‘a sort of marvellous bohemian life with a bit of comfort. The great thing is that my office isn’t here, it’s in LA — they don’t get to the office until it’s six o’clock in the evening here.’
Born (in 1937) and brought up in Bradford, Hockney is a Yorkshireman. In the film, he quotes T.S. Eliot’s line about those on whom assurance sits, ‘As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire’. Then just nods at the camera, as if to say, ‘So there.’ One reason for his confidence is, of course, his talent. He is and always has been a brilliant draughtsman. Teased by fellow students at the Royal College of Art about his northern accent — ‘There’s trouble at t’mill’, they’d say — Hockney, in response, would look at their work. ‘If that’s how you draw, I’d keep a bit quieter if I were you.’
A lot of Hockney’s effort, for decades now, has gone into asserting the place of his art — drawing — in the modern, multi-media world. ‘I’m not a mad technical person, but anything visual appeals to me.’ The iPhone drawings are only the latest example. Before them came fax prints, and photo-collages that demonstrated how partial and restricted the camera-eye view of the world actually is.
When pressed, Hockney describes himself as an ‘English Los Angeleno’. Perhaps it would be closer to the truth to say he is a Yorkshire Californian. He has a sturdy independence of thought and behaviour that make him seem entirely at home striding down the front at Bridlington in the film, or — alternatively — at his other house in the hills above Hollywood in free and easy LA.
In the last few years Hockney has launched into an activity that hadn’t been in the fore-front of artistic activity since the days of Monet and Van Gogh: painting landscape en plein air. He has produced a huge number of works, sometimes at the rate of almost one a day. They are filled with the joie de vivre that has always been characteristic of his art, combined with a new close observation of such things as twigs and hedgerow plants.
It looks like a distinctly quirky move. But Hockney has a knack of being in tune with the zeitgeist. Looked at again, these pictures are saying something that writers on ecology and the natural world such as the late Roger Deakin and Robert Macfarlane have emphasised recently: nature is a huge and fascinatingly complex system, but you don’t have to go to the end of the earth to find it. It’s there on your doorstep — or in a seldom visited corner of provincial England such as East Yorkshire.
The harder you look, Hockney suggests, the more you notice. ‘I took one of those Japanese sketch books which open out, and I would tell Jean-Pierre when to stop the car, then I’d draw different grasses in the hedgerow. In two and a half hours I’d filled the sketchbook, and after that I saw a great deal clearer.’
Landscape and nature dominate Hockney’s life these days. In mid-May, I arranged to call in with my wife to see him for lunch. The exact timing was decided only after a lengthy conversation by text, the point to be determined being when the hawthorn would come into blossom. As soon as it was out, he would want to be painting it all day, every day. So a definite invitation could only be made after the progress of buds in the local hedgerows was examined. Day after day for several years, in summer heat and freezing winter winds, Hockney has set up a canvas beside some quiet road. The film catches him at work, putting on the paint. At one point a local driver stops to remark to Jean-Pierre — in Yorkshire so broad that the BBC has resorted to subtitles — ‘Tell him when he’s finished we’ve got some decorating needs doing at t’pub.’ Hockney himself is as unmoved as Van Gogh was when heckled by the youth of Arles. He carries on calmly depicting the rolling fields.
This is home territory to him. ‘In my early teenage years I worked on a farm during holiday breaks from Bradford Grammar School, I came here and stooked corn in the early 1950s. So I cycled around, and I discovered it was rather beautiful. Most people don’t.’
Hockney likes discovering facts that most people don’t notice. He is an instinctive member of the awkward squad, or — as his sister Margaret says in the film — he has taken on board their parents’ injunction: dare to be a Daniel. One of his more minor campaigns has been to defend that — in the contemporary climate — indefensible practice: smoking (he and his Bridlington household puff constantly and happily on cigarettes).
In 2001, Hockney defied the established verities of art history with his book, Secret Knowledge, which argued that painters from the 15th century onwards had made use of lenses and mirrors in their work. It set off a firestorm of art-historical debate that has not yet died down. In conversation, Hockney takes it further. ‘For 500 years the church had social control partly because it controlled images, then that power moved slowly to the media: television, the press. That’s changing now because I can distribute them myself, from a small machine in my hand. And if I can, millions can. That is a revolution, and we don’t know where it’s going to take us.’
As so often with Hockney, this thesis sounds wackier than it actually is. In the last few months, for example, police behaviour at demonstrations has suddenly become subject to close examination, precisely because there is a camera in every mobile phone and its images can be published on the web with great ease. Something similar is happening now in Iran. That is indeed a shift of power.
His choice of life on the Yorkshire coast is also more commonsensical than it might appear. Painters like places with good light and Bridlington has plenty of that. It’s at its most beautiful, Hockney says, ‘between 5.15, when the sun has been up a little bit and you get its shadows, until about 8.30. Most people sleep through it.’ Hockney’s iPhone works are done, for the most part, very early in the morning. ‘I wake when it starts getting light, and I do little drawings of
the dawn, while I’m still in bed’. Many of them show the sun peeping through the venetian blind, and vases of flowers silhouetted against the light. They are intimate, spontaneous: a very old subject, somehow looking fresh and new.
The other day I got a text from him: ‘I’ll send you today’s dawn this afternoon, an absurd sentence I know, but you know what I mean.’ This was almost immediately followed by another (Hockney is as fluent a texter as any teenager). ‘Would Turner have slept through such terrific drama? Absolutely not! Anyone in my business who slept through that would be a fool. I don’t keep office hours.’
Of course, it’s impossible to say whether Turner, who was also fond of Margate — another east coast resort — and of observing the rising sun would also have taken to the luminous screen of the iPhone. But I suspect he would have loved it.
David Hockney: A Bigger Picture is on BBC1 on Tuesday 30 June at 10.35 p.m.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated June 27, 2009