Go East, Old Man; David Hockney in Yorkshire

The work David Hockney has been undertaking in East Yorkshire has changed my understanding of my home county. I wish it could do the same for the rest of the UK.
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The work David Hockney has been undertaking in East Yorkshire has changed my understanding of my home county. I wish it could do the same for the rest of the UK.

What were once simple journeys from Hull to Malton or to Pocklington or from any random point in East Yorkshire to any other random point have, over the past four or five years, become long, unfocussed meanders. Trips to local parks with my partner and infant daughter have been replaced with extended ventures up hill and down the Wolds. See, there’s a genius at work in my backyard, documenting the landscape I grew up in and presenting the globe with his vision of the Riding he now calls home. Because of all this and because I want to understand more deeply the beauty that surrounds me, I’ve slowly (and for my family, infuriatingly) become a Hockney Hunter.

Over the past decade David Hockney - CH, RA, one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century and labelled Britain’s favourite artist - has gradually forsaken his home in Los Angeles, California for a permanent base in Bridlington, East Yorkshire. He left the glitz, glamour and cosseting sunshine to live in a (rather handsome, it must be said) simple red brick house near the fairground rides, candy floss, chips and seagull poo of Brid. The warm Pacific lapping by his door has been replaced by the bite of the icy North Sea. Where most people his age are retiring to sunnier seats, he is standing in the corner of muddy fields in the least fancied of the Yorkshire Ridings, being whipped by snow, sleet and rain. Why? Simply because it’s caught his eye.

The eye that helped define Pop Art and has made masterful images out of some of the most dramatic legendary vistas on Earth has been turned to the humble flowers and trees and hedgerows round Wetwang, Thwing and Fridaythorpe. And I couldn’t be more delighted. When I started happening upon Hockney’s East Yorkshire work it was a revelation. The first one I saw was a mid 90’s watercolour called ‘a gap in the hedgerow’, it’s a simple drawing perfectly summed up by the title - just a hedge, a verge and some hills in the distance, but without knowing the title or the artist I knew absolutely that it was East Yorkshire. I knew because I’d seen those elements in that layout with my naked eye every day of my forty-odd years. But I’d never seen them captured so perfectly in art. When I found out it was by Hockney and that he was turning out incredible landscape works just round the corner from my house on a daily basis, I very quickly became more than a little obsessed. Not in a sad ‘look-look-there’s-a-celebrity’ kind of way but in a ‘how-have-I-missed-all-this-all-around-me?’ kind of way.

I went to see the Turner prize exhibit at Tate Britain last year without knowing that ‘Bigger Trees Near Warter’ had been installed in the gallery. When I walked onto the room housing both it and two other versions on adjoining walls I was physically and emotionally overwhelmed.

I sought Hockney out - the pictures, the documentaries the newspaper articles - trying to find out what was happening and revelling in it. These days I see colours and patterns in the countryside of East Yorkshire that had simply not registered before. Purply-pinks in the flower tops, vivid green whorls in the trees. I’ve a new found fascination with every thistle in every thicket and there’s revelations waiting in every coppice between Bugthorpe and Boynton. I keep finding reasons to take unwarranted diversions around farm tracks and drive around to see new corners of a county I thought held no more mystery. I’m not saying I now see all this like a Hockney painting but he has made me reappraise the way I interact with the landscape and, for the first time in my life, I’m looking at it all afresh. Also, I secretly hope that as I meander around I’ll catch sight of a corner of an easel poking up from over a hedge and closer investigation will reveal a white-capped pensioner furiously slaving away turning an unprepossessing ploughed field in to a masterwork.

Hockney is doing something truly wonderful in this part of the World. When I see a field or view in East Yorkshire I don’t see it like he does. I don’t see the colours as vividly or the glory in the everyday. I think it’s because I’ve seen it forever and while my eyes see, say, the actual ‘Bigger’ trees he painted near Warter on a Summer day my brain retains a residual image of the same scene in Autumn or Winter and includes that information in my vision. My memory blurs the picture until it becomes just some trees. Hockney, however, will paint the same aspect everyday for months to eradicate the residual memory and live in the moment. He consequently sees those trees, in thatmoment, in that’s day’s conditions and represents that immediacy in his images. And he does this so simply, an impression created in a few lines, in the same way a good chef diligently works a stock until it becomes something refined and intense but reduced in volume. Except Hockney often goes large.

There have been exhibitions of his recent work in London, LA, New York and an upcoming show in Paris. There are images of East Yorkshire in private collections God-knows-where in the World and his iPictures are sent to friends on a daily basis.

In his quest to capture the county he started with watercolour and oils drawn from memory and then moved onto huge multi-canvas works that take up entire gallery walls. He’s now brought multimedia to the party, using photography and video to assist him in capturing bigger vistas. Despite mastering all of these skills he’s still restless and wants to push further forward. He’s now using iPhones and iPads to create quick, immediate images (like the one he’s reportedly working on of sunrise over Brid for the 2012 Olympics). Despite the advent of these much easier disseminated digital formats and the fact that he’s made hundreds of these images over the past decade it’s really, really hard to get to see any of them.

I fully appreciate that Hockney has every right to do exactly what he wants with his work and if I was him I wouldn’t want to license them injudiciously so that my daily stroll along the Brid seafront was spoilt by seeing poorly printed tea towels and tote bags featuring images I’ve sweated blood over. But I’m convinced the work Hockney is doing will come to define East Yorkshire in the way that Lowry’s did of Salford or the impressionists’ did of France and it would be very sad if we have to wait until the pictures are out of copyright before they are commonly available. I wish his work could be more accessible to the people that would benefit most from exposure to it. There have been exhibitions of his recent work in London, LA, New York and an upcoming show in Paris. There are images of East Yorkshire in private collections God-knows-where in the World and his iPictures are sent to friends on a daily basis. Yet there is no permanent means for the average resident of Great Britain to physically appreciate this work without travelling to one or two galleries. There’s some in London, some in his permanent collection in Saltaire and there may well be others in between that I don’t know about and it’s great that East Yorkshire is being seen by people who would otherwise not know it exists. But even greater availability to the residents of every part of the UK would, I’m convinced, mean they see not just the East Riding but all of Britain’s countryside in a new light and be as moved and exhilarated by these pictures as I am.

I went to see the Turner prize exhibit at Tate Britain last year without knowing that ‘Bigger Trees Near Warter’ had been installed in the gallery. When I walked onto the room housing both it and two other versions on adjoining walls I was physically and emotionally overwhelmed. I’ve stood on the spot Hockney painted this work yet, when I saw how he had interpreted the same view it felt more real, more intense. Here I was, in the middle of London, feeling more surrounded by East Yorkshire than when actually at home. Honestly. One day I’m sure you’ll all feel the same way.

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