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I went to the brilliant Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy a bit late to make it of any relevance for Trivial Pursuits readers. Although, when heading through the show I saw this boy drawing determinedly on his RA children’s workbook and thought it would be rude not to share it. As you can see (kind of), in the space where the booklet asks him to pick a painting he likes and draw it, our young artist has depicted a helicopter dropping bombs on a dinosaur, which roars angrily whilst under fire from a man with double handguns.

Hockney landscapes: dinosaurs and double handguns

It was a highly imaginative representation of the North Yorkshire landscape that was in front of him and I think David Hockney would be delighted that future generations of artists are adapting his work in such a way. Anyway, before someone arrested me I moved on to see the rest of the exhibition.

Following the show, I read the first part of the recent biography by Christopher Simon Sykes, Hockney: A Rake’s Progress. It charts Hockney’s humble beginnings up to his international renown by 1975.

We now know him as one of the most important figures in British art, finding success in in a variety of media including painting, printmaking, stage designing, photography and more recently iPad sketching. Hockney’s controversial character, his cheeky Northern charm, his tireless social side and work ethic, and the breadth of his oeuvre make it unsurprising that Sykes decided to break the biography into two parts. Admittedly though, this would be my one criticism – it does make the read a little dull in parts. Whilst you can’t accuse the author of not being thorough there are areas, which delve into the finer details of his paintings and social events he attended or hosted and other occasions where I found myself turning over the pages quickly until I got to a more interesting part.

I enjoyed the book though. Accessibly written and, like Hockney, it isn’t at all pretentious. It captures the early periods of his life with the humour and unassuming nature that epitomises Hockney as a person and couples his greatest early achievements with enjoyable background stories.

Growing up in wartime Bradford, the infant Hockney had a remarkable near miss from a Luftwaffe bomb that flattened the next-door house. He also became used to the idea of not caring what the neighbours thought via his father, a conscientious objector and human rights activist.

It deals well with the issues surrounding his homosexuality. Not that he ever had any issues with it from his side, more of society’s issues with it in general. It wasn’t decriminalised in the UK until 1967. There is a great story where Hockney had some non-pornographic nude men magazines confiscated by Customs at a London airport. Mostly to fuel his sense of fun, he decided to take Customs to court, with the argument that the magazines were integral to his artistic production. Before long the case had escalated to Prime Minister Jim Callaghan, who, fearing public repercussion, ordered their return to the artist. Hockney became a gay rights icon.

Never a big fan of maths at school, in one exam when asked to show Pythagoras’s theorem, Hockney drew a picture of a Greek man with a beard, holding a set square in one hand and a scroll of paper in the other with added text indicating that it was Pythagoras’s Theorem.

Hockney never cared for authority or establishment if it disagreed with his own principles. This never changed with his increasing stardom, as he rubbed shoulders with many of the rich and famous from the UK and the USA. His own opinion remained unequivocally his, as his description of meeting the grumpy W.H. Auden shows: “If his face is like that, imagine what his scrotum looks like.”

A Bigger Splash – 1967

Sykes collected an abundance of sources in the creation of the biography, but the greatest of these are the diaries of the artist’s mother, Laura Hockney. She documented her son’s rise to fame with a refreshing naivety that only a mother can have. When seeing his shows she, often self-depreciatively, admitted not understanding their content but if it brought David success and joy then it was okay with her. She also never realised, or let on that she realised, his homosexuality, until watching the 70s film biopic, A Bigger Splash, which reveals the most complicated stages of his relationship with Peter Schlesinger. She writes that as long as he is healthy and happy, she’ll leave the rest to God.

Part one finishes with his 1975 bold, Hogarth-inspired stage designs for a production of Stravinksy’s The Rake’s Progress and the enormous party that follows. As we know, there was still a great deal more to come from Hockney’s artistic endeavours.

By Edward Lines

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