Portrait of a very eccentric father who shaped our greatest living artist: He’s made millions from his paintings, but as his brother’s new memoir reveals, David Hockney’s genius was forged in poverty… and neighbours’ cruel abuse
Having David Hockney as your older brother is sometimes handy, as demonstrated when our family got together at a restaurant with poor service.
We waited and waited to order. David got terribly bored. Spreading his pink serviette on the table in front of him, he began to draw all of us around the table, including his dogs Stanley and Boodgie.
His drawing attracted the waiter’s attention, so we were able to place our order and eat our meal. The owner asked if he could keep the napkin but David refused, taking it home and printing us copies instead.
John Hockney, left, pictured with his artist brother David in 2013 at an event in Los Angeles
His fame has touched all his family in varying degrees, mostly my parents, whose simple life revolved around their home in Bradford. When David had an exhibition opening in Paris, showing work he had contributed to the December 1985 issue of French Vogue, my mother became guest of honour, as she recalled in her diary.
‘We visited the gallery and David was presented with a copy of Vogue in a leather case. Dozens of photographers and thousands of people were there.
‘To celebrate my 85th birthday, next morning I was measured for a suit at Coco Chanel. It is a beautiful fit and of the finest of wool.’
Mum wore the suit when she accompanied David to Buckingham Palace to receive his Companion of Honour from the Queen. She could have had champagne but chose tea instead.
On another occasion she was given pearls from the Emperor of Japan but they were too heavy to wear on her ageing, thin frame.
Kenneth Hockney, David and John’s father wa a telegraph boy, pictured
Visits to meet the famous kept her alive, with something to look forward to. The actor Vincent Price, an avid art collector, was among those who came to Bradford and had tea with her at what she called her ‘humble house’.
And in Los Angeles, where David has long had a home, she met stars including Michael Caine, who asked her how she liked Hollywood. Her answer was: ‘Nobody seems to hang their washing out, Michael.’
My parents would once only have dreamed of meeting such people and visiting such places, and it seems a pity that Dad, who died in 1977, wasn’t there to share it all too, especially as his philosophy of life did so much to inspire David.
Born in Bradford in 1904, Dad grew up in a family open to life as it came. Grandpa Hockney was a former farm labourer who ran a tripe shop and later became a pharmacist’s assistant.
For him and my grandmother there was no religion, no regular attendance at church and, unlike my mother’s teetotal parents, both members of the Salvation Army, they partook of alcohol regularly.
By the time they finally married in 1903 they already had three children and Dad, who arrived the following year, was the first to be born in wedlock.
From his mother, he acquired both the genetic deafness which he has passed on to all of us, and a lovable eccentricity.
When unannounced visitors called, Grandma Hockney excused herself, saying ‘I’ll just change my dress’, returning in a new dress pulled over the one she already had on.
Dad, who loved Laurel and Hardy and Charlie Chaplin, liked wearing a clip-on bow tie to which he affixed brightly coloured stationery dots to add colour to his world.
‘Never worry what the neighbours think,’ was his favourite advice and David took it to heart.
As an art student in the 1950s he was oblivious to the comments made when, wearing a bowler hat, long red scarf and duffle coat, and spats over his shoes, he transported his canvases and easels around our neighbourhood in an old pram. My brother Paul refused to walk with him, but I loved how he dressed.
Proclaiming his homosexuality in 1962, long before the word ‘gay’ was used in that context, David isn’t afraid to stand up for what he thinks is right, as our father did before him.
David Hockney, pictured with his mother Laura, often used his parents as inspiration for his work
As a young man, Dad was persuaded by a friend to attend a talk given by an evangelist preacher. His words moved Dad to accept Jesus that day, and he met my mother when he began helping out with her Sunday School classes at Eastbrook Methodist Mission.
After marrying in 1929, they set up home at 61 Steadman Terracea two-bedroom terrace house with an outside lavatory. It stood at the top of a steep hill that was murder to climb while pushing a pram, as my mother soon was, with five children arriving at two-yearly intervals: Paul in 1931, Philip in 1933, Margaret in 1935 and David and I in 1937 and 1939.
Dad had been bright enough to go on to further education but, with his older brother Willie away fighting in World War I, creating a void in the family budget, Grandma Hockney had insisted he leave school.
His quick mind for figures and handwriting skills soon won him a job as accounts clerk at a large grocery store, sitting on a high stool in a Dickensian one-man office, huddled over a sloping desk and scribing daily figures.
We always thought him so important having an office to himself, but his talents were best put to use outside work.
Long before high-viz jackets were commonly worn, he made armbands out of orange fluorescent material so he could be seen at night when crossing the road. He was often laughed at but never worried what people thought.
Always late for everything, he resorted to wearing two watches, one set fast, but still he was never on time because he forgot which watch was correct.
Eventually he decided to wear only one watch and wrote to Fattorini’s, the Bradford jewellers, asking them to set it ‘to gain rather than be accurate’. They refused.
This was one of myriad letters he penned. Another was to the local Morrison’s supermarket manager, praising the perforation marks of Izal toilet rolls.
‘They always tear to perfection,’ he enthused.
Hockney’s 1957 study of Tunwell Lane, in Eccleshill, pictured, where the family moved in 1943
He also corresponded with world leaders on humanitarian matters. In a letter to the Pope, Dad asked him to sell the solid-gold telephone on his bedside table and give the money to the poor of Mexico. And he fought so long and hard against capital punishment that in 1965 he was invited to Parliament to see the act to abolish hanging go through in person.
According to David’s fellow students at art college, he talked proudly about that honour and the replies and Christmas cards Dad received from statesmen such as Gandhi, Khrushchev, Nixon and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Dad’s letters often expressed his pacifist views, formed after seeing his brother return from World War I retching and coughing continually from the effects of gas poisoning.
After seeing combat in the trenches and mates dying in front of him, Willie was a shell of his old jovial self and from then on my father was an avowed peace campaigner.
When World War II broke out, he registered as a conscientious objector. In years to come, David would do the same, completing his National Service by working in hospitals instead of in the Forces.
For Dad, the result was that he was tormented verbally and physically by work colleagues and also faced bitterness at home, a neighbour painting the word ‘Coward’ on our wall every night. Every morning, Dad rose early to wash it off before going to work.
In 1977 Hockney completed this work, My Parents, featuring Laura and Kenneth Hockney
In 1943, to avoid further confrontations, we moved to a three- storey house with a cellar at 18 Hutton Terrace, Eccleshill, a village on the outskirts of Bradford. It is now 77 years since David and I began sharing our attic bedroom there, sleeping in two hospital-type beds placed one against each wall. The floral lino was cold on our feet in winter but a couple of grey army blankets kept us warm.
Dad’s loving goodnight was complemented with ‘chin pie’, a rub of his stubbly chin on our soft cheeks, and he painted sunrises on the doors to brighten our lives during the long summer evenings when a blackout curtain blocked the light from outside.
OF course, back then, I had no perception that David was to become one of the greatest artists of the 21st century. To satisfy his need to draw during wartime, when paper was unaffordable at least for our family, he woke first, quietly creeping downstairs and drawing on the white edge of Dad’s newspaper, Mum’s magazine or whatever else arrived that day.
For family members, there was gentle irritation that their newspaper or comic had been interfered with, and once read it was thrown away or used to light the fire — complete with David’s sketches.
Eager to draw at any time, he carried a pencil in his pocket when we went to chapel and used the blank pages at the back and front of hymn books to draw on.
When he won a scholarship to Bradford Grammar School in 1948, he had to wear a second-hand blazer, the Hockneys’ financial situation having become disastrous when, soon after VE Day, Dad was fired for his pacifist beliefs. These had been tolerated only while he was needed and he no longer was, made surplus to requirements by returning soldiers needing jobs, and the invention of the mechanical calculator.
To make ends meet, Dad had begun refurbishing babies’ prams and making new dolls’ prams, and as we had no home telephone, the advertisements he placed in the local newspaper required interested clients to ring a local phone box between 9am and 11am on Saturdays.
Each week, Dad heaved an armchair onto his back, carried it up to the phone box and sat outside waiting for calls, nonchalantly reading the newspaper and directing any approaching member of the public to the next box a short way away.
Each of the prams featured decorative lines painted by Dad with a long sable brush, and David was mesmerised by how straight they were and how, with a twist of his hand, Dad created a perfect serif.
At the grammar school, art, being regarded as purely recreational, was restricted to one-and-a-half hours a week.
Promising students were forced to drop it altogether, so David deliberately failed academic subjects, once refusing to hand in an essay as his English homework and vowing not to waste time on sports.
He allegedly won a cross-country race, to general surprise, but was disqualified when a master travelling on a bus spotted him riding a bicycle part of the way. He wasn’t ashamed, his opposition to sport giving him more time to draw.
Only in his final year at school did David begin intense study of English, History and other subjects. This stood him in good stead for his transfer to Bradford College of Art — and while there he found an early critic in my father, whose portrait he wanted to submit to an exhibition in Leeds.
During the sitting, Dad had positioned a mirror so he could see what David was painting and he commented on his choice of colours as he went along. ‘I don’t think that’s right, not for the cheeks,’ he would say, but David assured him it was how they were taught at art school and he was vindicated when, on the first day of the exhibition, My Father sold for £10 — a fortnight’s wages for its subject.
Later awarded the rare distinction of a gold medal at the Royal College of Art, he was soon regarded as someone to watch, getting his first one-man show in 1963. That was at a gallery in London which promised him sales of £600 a year, twice what our father earned, but David has never pursued wealth for wealth’s sake. He pursues art and only a selfish person can be so devoted to it.
By ‘selfish’ I mean that for David to achieve what he needs to explore at any given time, he must nurture every minute in that pursuit. Nothing else matters.
On a visit to America in 1964 he bought a second-hand Ford Falcon convertible in New York, filled it with petrol and drove to California.
He loved the sunshine, swimming pools, minimal clothing and warm, balmy days. With light and a brightness that made colours vibrate, California was the exact opposite of Bradford’s overcast gloom and an ecstatic David had soon bought a house in the Hollywood Hills.
The first time I visited him there, he took our mother and me to Christmas lunch at the home of director John Schlesinger, and we shared New Year with actor/director Tony Richardson and his daughter Natasha.
On subsequent visits, singer Tony Bennett and his daughter Antonia joined us for Christmas Day at David’s beach house in Malibu. But although he knew exciting people, I sensed a sadness in his invitations to join him for Christmas in LA in the late Seventies and early Eighties.
‘I wish my arms stretched to Los Angeles, you need a hug,’ I would say, knowing he was sometimes lonely.
Although he still had homes in both LA and London, the 1990s found him spending increasing amounts of time in the seaside town of Bridlington, Yorkshire, where our mother had moved to live with our sister Margaret.
Margaret had a large house across from the promenade and David would drive from London to visit them.
Each visit he would stay a bit longer, and after Mum’s death in 1999 he moved into Margaret’s house and she moved to a small bungalow near by.
In December 2012 I rang from my home in Australia to wish him Happy Christmas and realised I couldn’t make out what he was saying. As he had been teetotal since having a heart attack in 1990, I knew he wasn’t drunk so I emailed Margaret to ask if he was well. She told me he’d had a stroke in November and she wasn’t to tell anyone.
I flew back to see for myself. By the time I arrived, David had begun drawing again.
It was a blessing. He has always said that life will be finished for him if he cannot use his hands, and he’ll no doubt be drawing and painting until his final day.
Adapted from The Hockneys: Never Worry What The Neighbours Think, by John Hockney, published by Legend Press at £25. © John Hockney 2019.
To order a copy for £20 (offer valid to 17/10/2019; P&P free), call 01603 648155 or go to www.mailshop.co.uk
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