Spring has not been cancelled. Neither have the arts ceased to function. David Hockney’s marvellous exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery may be sadly shut, but the artist himself is firing on all cylinders.
‘I was just drawing on this thing I’m talking to you on,’ he announced when I spoke to him via FaceTime the other day. He was sitting in the sunshine outside his half-timbered farmhouse in Normandy.
‘We’re very busy here,’ Hockney explained, ‘because all the blossom is just coming out, and there’s a lot more to come. The big cherry tree looks glorious right now. Next the leaves will open, but at the moment the blossom is ravishing. The apple trees haven’t started yet!’ Obviously he has a packed schedule ahead.
This way of life, though isolated, is not the result of the lockdown. Hockney had always planned to spend long months in the French countryside, just drawing and painting. That was how he spent most of last year too.
What art historians of the future may call his second French period — Hockney spent a couple of years in Paris in the early 1970s — began on the spur of the moment the autumn before last. The artist made a short trip across the Channel and enjoyed it so much that he snapped up a pied-à-terre.
Last summer, in a distant era when it was quite normal to travel so far, I paid a visit chez Hockney. His acquisition turned out to be an old rustic building folded into a rolling landscape: lawns, trees, a pond and meadowland tumbling down to a stream at the bottom of the valley. One of the barns had been converted into a spacious studio.