Sit still

Exploring David Hockney’s unseen sketchbooks and early portrait work
Art | 13 February 2020
Text Finn Blythe

David Hockney
“Gregory. Los Angeles. March 31st 1982″
Composite polaroid
14 1/2 x 13 1/4”
© David Hockney
Photo Credit: Richard Schmidt

Before he moved to America, before he began painting naked bodies in LA pools, before becoming one of the most cherished contemporary artists of the last fifty years, David Hockney was, and still is, an excellent draughtsman.

A new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery revisits his art school days in Bradford during the 1950s, where Hockney’s sketchbook was filled with self-portraits and an intimate group of sitters that included his muse, Celia Birtwell, his mother, Laura Hockney, the curator Gregory Evans, close friends and master printer, Maurice Payne.


With around 150 works on show, the exhibition traces Hockney’s life-long trajectory through reference to these five characters (whom he revisited throughout the past 50 years), and his masterful ability to draw as fluidly in pencil and ink as pastel and watercolour.

“By focussing on Hockney as a supreme draughtsman and his intimate and revealing sustained depictions of sitters over time (including himself) the exhibition will demonstrate his constant and continuing ingenuity with portrait drawings which reference both tradition and technology – from Ingres to the iPad,” said Dr Nicholas Cullinan, director of the National Portrait Gallery.

The central question of this show is how Hockney’s ability as a draughtsman both equipped him with the fundamental tools to interpret the world around him, and acted as a test site for ideas and styles that manifested in later work. Take his neo-Classical line drawings of the 70s, for example. With their deft simplicity, they echo the forms and composition of legendary neo-Classical French painter Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. Hockney’s attitude towards photography meanwhile was strictly Modernist, as evidenced by his 80s composite Polaroids that evoked the work of Cubists and Picasso by melding multiple perspectives on one canvas.

Hockney’s genius may be well-trodden, but by focussing on the arc of his career through five of his closest subjects, this exhibition promises to reveal the intimacy that has shaped his work and the origin of technical developments that have made it legendary.

David Hockney: Drawing from Life is on at National Portrait Gallery from 27 February – 28 June 2020. 

16 1/2 X 11 3/4″

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