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David Hockney


The Yorkshire Muse

I spent the first week of October at the Ted Hughes Arvon Centre, the poet’s former West Yorkshire home that has been converted to a writers’ retreat. I went to work on fashioning a manuscript from the raw material of this blog, something I started a year and a half ago out of boredom when I got sick and had to spend a few weeks in bed. I feel spoiled for leaving one rural idyll to go to another to write, but the Yorkshire moors have the advantage of being distraction free. There was no television, no Internet, and no husband.

Of course I still found my distractions, mostly welcome, in the form of the disarming number of literary and artistic links packed into a twenty mile radius of the tiny village of Heptonstall where I was staying. I started with a visit to the Bronte parsonage in the village of Haworth, ten miles to the north. That feeling I had read Wuthering Heights because I could summon the names Cathy and Heathcliff and place them in the moors turned out to be the same phenomenon that makes you think you’ve seen It’s a Wonderful Life just because it’s playing in the background or you flick by it a million times every December. But the fact that I had never read anything by the Bronte sisters didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the small museum, the beautifully restored parsonage that was their former home. My favorite was the sitting room with the table around which the sisters apparently circled endlessly while writing their books. In the upstairs bedroom directly above this room an artist had installed the sound of footsteps coming up through the chimney breast.

Nearer to my home for the week was the village of Hebden Bridge, packed with independent bookstores, coffee shops, small galleries and shops selling fairtrade organic cotton. It was confusing, as if a slice of Seattle retail had been airdropped into West Yorkshire. Up the hill in Heptonstall, Sylvia Plath is buried in the church cemetery. I found out she was buried there ahead of time and made the effort to read The Bell Jar. Somehow I had escaped it in my scant two university literature courses, although I seem to recall my feminist studies friend, Jenny, was a big fan. I became a fan on page one, as soon as I read the phrase “fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway.” I did not, however, feel moved to leave a pen in the plastic jar on her grave as some other fans had. (I have felt strange about visiting the graves of the famous ever since that time when I was 19 and visited Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris, littered with dropouts and half-empty liquor bottles. Pens, on balance, are less depressing.)

I wasn’t safe from distractions even when I was in the house. I felt ashamed that I’d never actually read any Ted Hughes and I was staying in his former house, especially when some of my fellow writers confessed that was the main reason they had come. To compensate I plucked a copy of Birthday Letters from the library where I did most my writing and read it when I needed a break.

I ended the week with a visit to Salt Mills, a former mill that now houses a large David Hockney collection only a few miles from where the artist was born and raised. It is not as slick as the Tate Modern but shares that same comforting feeling of a saved former industrial building. Inside there is a happy marriage of art and commerce, including an airy cafe. It was the perfect place to end my week with the muses of Yorkshire.


Stalking David Hockney

I’m just back from Los Angeles and, despite having lived there for ten years, felt like I was seeing it for the first time. My eye, accustomed to the wobbly stone and green and brown landscape that is the Cotswolds, was startled by this paean to mid-century design, all stucco cubes in mustard yellows, olive greens and shell pinks set against an aching blue sky. Now I understand that only an Englishman could and did paint A Bigger Splash.

As a teenager my sister had a poster of Hockney’s iconic California image hanging in her bedroom. We lived in Florida but every summer we visited my grandparents in SoCal for two weeks, and we loved that poster because Hockney could have painted it from their back patio. The only difference was that the diving board was rotated 45 degrees in Hockney’s version and instead of a director’s chair, my grandparents had a non-adjustable teal green chaise lounge. It was constructed of hundreds of rubber chords strung taut on a metal frame, and it left ripples of angry red welts across your skin after just a few minutes of lying on it. Still it looked good in its own mid-century, minimalist way. I’d even go as far as to say it would have been a better choice than Hockney’s deck chair, it’s low horizontal line echoing the planes of the sliding glass doors and flat roof.

In 2005, right before I left Los Angeles to move to London, I spent a lunch hour at an exhibit of Hockney’s Yorkshire paintings in watercolours. I was alone except for the gallery assistant in this quiet mecca, a block from the riot of Los Angeles that is Venice Beach, and the fact that Hockney had turned his artistic attention to the rural landscape of England felt somehow like a private pre-welcome party for me. The following year I spent more lunch hours at a second exhibit of Hockney’s Yorkshire paintings, these in oil, at a gallery on Derring Street in London around the corner from my then office on Hanover Square. The Cotswolds weren’t even in my consciousness back then, but Hockney’s images of wheat and rolling hills and country roads covered in a canopy of trees were burning themselves into my psyche for later recall. It was like Hockney knew about my move to the country before I did.

One of the joys of reading is that thrill of recognition when an author conveys something you have felt or thought or done and does so with flair and sometimes wit and above all authenticity. These moments offer the paradox of human connection via the largely individual pursuits of reading and, for the author, writing. David Hockney’s California and Yorkshire paintings make me feel the same way. I know he has painted other places and people and things, but these paintings are the ones that make me feel understood, perhaps like only and Englishman could.

P.S. Artsy’s David Hockney page is a cool resource on all things Hockney.