The man with the scythe was busy this summer striding vengefully through the British art world. First, he cut down Lucian Freud. Next, he took Richard Hamilton. At a slash, Britain’s two most important artists were consigned to the history books. It must therefore have been a summer of some significance for David Hockney, reminding him, should he have needed any reminding, of the fragility of life, and handing to him a mite prematurely perhaps the mantle of Britain’s greatest living artist.
For a couple of decades already, Hockney has been a shoo-in for the “best-loved” title. Charismatic, colourful, quotable, available, he has achieved his national-treasure status without ever allowing anyone to probe that clever and cheeky surface of his. Christopher Simon Sykes’s two-volume attempt is the first meaty Hockney biography, and the opening volume follows him from his birth in Bradford in 1937, through his decadent contribution to the 1960s, to the premier of The Rake’s Progress at Glyndebourne in 1975, an event for which Hockney’s restaurateur of choice, the demented Peter Langan, laid on a bus-load of LSD and enough champagne to breach a levy.
Hockney had designed the sets for The Rake’s Progress and the champagne orgy that celebrated this new direction was a fitting finale to his progress so far. Has any notable British artist ever led a life that consisted so fully of doing exactly what they pleased? Or one that appeared to feature so few obstacles? Ever since Hockney won his first art prize at one of the top grammar schools in Britain, Bradford, his talent has been relentlessly rewarded.
His mother, Laura, was a Methodist vegetarian who adored her beloved David and forgave his every transgression. When she finally found out he was gay — the spiteful Private Eye used his picture in an appalling article called How to Spot a Possible Homo — Laura wrote sweetly in her diary: “I commend my boy to God and leave it to Him to decide.”
His father, Kenneth, may well be the most remarkable man in this book. Cultured, independent, stubborn as a goat, Kenneth spent the war years facing down his neighbours as a conscientious objector and later became a leading force in the anti-nuclear movement. Hockney traces his love of art to the painting of silver lines on the reconditioned bicycles that his peacenik father fixed for a living. Hockney Sr loved music, too, and introduced his son to Wagner. Later, the two of them made placards together and brandished them at marches, demanding that alcohol and cigarettes be banned, as well as bombs.
When Hockney was growing up there, Bradford had 40 cinemas. Not only did they enable his first taste of Hollywood but it was in one of Bradford’s fleapits that “a man suddenly reached out and took my hand and placed it on his erect cock. I enjoyed it. And it gave me a lifelong love of cinemas”. Hockney’s sexual awakening reads unseriously here, as if scripted for one of Robin Askwith’s Confessions films. The next step was taken at that traditional British fiddling-ground — the scout camp.
Bradford gave Hockney a priceless gift: the immediate certainty that he had to get away. Everything that follows, from his trademark adoption of odd socks, to his departure for the swimming-pool paradise of California, can be understood as a reaction to the industrial darknesses of Yorkshire.
At the Royal College of Art, to which he won a scholarship in 1959, Hockney quickly unleashed his entrapped passions, notably the crush he had developed on Cliff Richard, the subject of a fabulous 1960 painting called Doll Boy. Borrowing a simple alphabet code from the homoerotic poems of Walt Whitman, Hockney expressed his secret love for Cliff with painted numbers. 3:18 are Cliff’s letters. 4:8 are his own.
The Royal College generation of which Hockney was a part certainly changed British art. Ron Kitaj, Allen Jones, Derek Boshier and Hockney seemed to be blowing raspberries at the gloom of the 1950s as they ushered in a bright new era. And they were still students. For the first time in British art, going to art school was the only apprenticeship you needed to become a famous artist.
Sykes, who has a talent for gossip, the result perhaps of having previously worked for House & Garden, is particularly effective in his racy depiction of the London art world through which Hockney rocketed in these madcap years. Before he even graduated, he was signed up by the art dealer John Kasmin. At the Kaplan Gallery, Kasmin and his boss shared the favours of the gallery’s receptionist who “liked to measure their penises during the office break”. Previously, in Kasmin’s stint at Gallery One, where Victor Musgrave and his wife Ida Karr ran a commune-cum-art gallery, Musgrave would pleasure Soho’s most experienced prostitutes while Kasmin “would take the under 28s”.
Being gay in this thunderously decadent art world was another way of fitting in. And when Hockney set off for California in 1963 it was with the express ambition of meeting handsome Californian boys. Hilariously, the first thing he did in Los Angeles was buy a car: even though he couldn’t drive. Having been warned to avoid the freeways, he managed immediately to blunder onto one and found himself heading for Las Vegas. Unable to turn around, he had no option but to finish the journey and place some bets.
It was in California that Hockney met the first real love of his life, Peter Schlesinger, a pretty Californian boy who followed him to London and remained his lover there for the next five years. Schlesinger, the archetypal boy in a shower, appears in some of Hockney’s best pool paintings. How paradoxical that art’s most determined celebrator of the Hollywood poolside should be the son of an Aldermaston marcher from Bradford.
Sykes’s interviews with Schlesinger are the closest we come in this book to accessing Hockney’s inner life. When, in 1971, Schlesinger dumped him, the resulting heartbreak is the nearest thing here to a setback. It was the textile designer Celia Birtwell who did most to pull Hockney out of his tailspin. Her husband, the obnoxious clothes designer Ossie Clark, had once been Hockney’s lover, but it was Celia who now gave Hockney a shoulder to cry on. Their closeness nearly led to an unexpected sexual relationship, before the jealous Clark broke Celia’s nose and the spell as well.
Sykes himself first met Hockney when he was a 17-year-old schoolboy, down from Eton. Only recently, after Hockney’s return to Britain from California, has he become a friend. The preface tells us that, after much pestering, Hockney allowed him to write this tome to coincide with an upcoming show at the Royal Academy next year. Sykes was granted 20 hours of interviews, and full access to family, friends and diaries. The result is not so much an authorised biography as a directed one. On every page here you feel you are reading what Hockney wants you to read. Volume two needs to contain more Wagner and less Mozart.