David Hockney. Photograph: Phil Fisk
Over the summer, David Hockney has been lying in his bed in Bridlington, East Yorkshire’s answer to Malibu, and trying to capture the sun rising over the bay on his iPhone. He uses an application called Brushes, and his thumb. When he’s finished a drawing, he’ll send it to 20 or so friends, straight off, by email. On good days each of his friends has been getting half a dozen original works by Britain’s best-loved artist well before breakfast. Were they suitably appreciative, I wonder. “Well, I think so,” says Hockney, whose accent seems even more lived-in since his return to his home county. “Someone said that if they see an email from me they know they don’t have to answer it, it’s a bit of pure pleasure and it’s free. So that’s all right, I suppose.” He’s stopped now, he says, because he can no longer see the autumn sun from his bedroom window, and “I’d have to get up and cross the road to do them, which wouldn’t be quite the same”.
If this sounds like retirement – sketching pink skies on a lie-in in what was once a seafront guest house – don’t be fooled. At 72, Hockney finds himself busier than ever. He has a show of his epic landscape paintings just about to debut in New York, a major retrospective that will open the new Nottingham Contemporary gallery next month, and he is already preparing for the most ambitious exhibition of his life in 2012, when the Royal Academy has invited him to fill the entire gallery for the Olympic year. “It keeps me young,” Hockney says of the challenge. Visitors to Bridlington routinely find themselves abruptly woken before dawn to accompany him to look at the way first light is falling on a particular stand of trees, the obsession of his recent work.
The iPhone drawings are explained as another of the artist’s familiar diversions – following on from his sometimes brilliant experiments with faxes, photocopies and Polaroids – all part of his restless need to find new ways of looking and drawing (his Desert Island Discs luxury was an electric pencil sharpener). Neighbours in Bridlington, he says, stop him from time to time in the high street to suggest that they have heard he has taken to drawing on his telephone; no, he says, it’s just that he occasionally speaks into his sketch pad.
I met up with Hockney in the studio in Kensington that he has had since the early 70s. He doesn’t work here much – it doesn’t have the attractions for him of Bridlington or Beverly Hills, between which he divides his time – but the room is filled with pinned-up drawings and paintings. He tucks into apple cake and tea, sets a packet of Camels next to him and talks, to begin with, about his unlikely homecoming.
He once said that he emigrated to California in the 60s because it offered “sun, sea and sex”. Though Bridlington can traditionally only guarantee one of these opportunities, he advertises the resort with comparable excitement.
He came back first when his mother was getting older – she died 10 years ago at 99 – and he bought the house in which he now lives for her to share with his sister, a herbalist. He had a studio in the attic, and on visits from the States he began painting some of the landscapes he had known from his childhood.
Hockney grew up in Bradford, but he worked over near the coast in the summers on a farm “just stooking corn, and I used to cycle all round there”. Not much has changed. “It’s just like the 50s really,” he says. “West Yorkshire is crowded with cars, but out where we are you can drive for hours and not see another soul.”
He used to take his mother out on some of these drives, along lanes, seeing where they would end up, and he discovered something in the landscape that has become his subject. Late Hockney, maybe. It was to do with the seasons, which he missed in California, a sense of circularity and return – and mortality. After his mother died – “she was in bed only the last three days of her life, and surrounded by four of her five children, so very blessed in a way” – he hadn’t really imagined that he would want to come back so often, but “it just happened”.
“I suddenly saw that there was a bigger thing for me to do there,” he says “as a painter. And it was a great place to do it. It was difficult to get to from London – you can’t go for a day – so I wouldn’t be interrupted. That’s what I want at my time in life, to be honest. You can work outside and no one bothers you. People smile at you in the street. It wouldn’t suit everyone, I suppose,” he says, “but it suits us.”
Hockney shares his house with his partner of 20 years, John Fitzherbert, and his assistant Jean-Pierre Gonçalves de Lima, a sometime accordion player. “Jean-Pierre,” he suggests, “is perhaps the only Parisian who has traded his city for Bridlington. He is fascinated by it all. It’s not very prosperous; people just shuffle around, but they are aware that it is a very rare place. We are very aware of that, too.”
After he so vividly escaped some of the narrowness of his postwar childhood – in search of the golden lads and desert air of the West Coast – it’s fascinating to see Hockney now so amused by his rootedness. A local historian has recently informed him that the Hockneys nearly all originally came from East Yorkshire and north Lincolnshire, where they were agricultural labourers of one sort or another. “He told me that they would have been looking at the hawthorn I had been painting, too, but to them it would have been something quite different – a hedgerow, I suppose.”
Part of Hockney’s desire for comparative solitude lies in the hereditary deafness that he’s struggled with for the past 30 years. Digital hearing aids allow him to follow one-on-one conversations, but in a restaurant he’s lost. As viewers of the 1974 film A Bigger Splash will know, Hockney got his fair share of partying in early, and he is a man with a keen and modest sense of his own good fortune: “It’s no good saying I wished I could go out more, because I can’t,” he says with a grin. “But I don’t bother about it too much.” He’s currently deep into reading a biography of Somerset Maugham, particularly for its revelations about Maugham’s relationship with the director George Cukor, an old friend of Hockney’s “who had rather a liking for bad boys, which I always enjoyed”. As he recalls this history, you can see in him, suddenly, the Royal College of Art student who once took to the stage in miners’ boots at a Christmas revue to sing: “I’m just a girl who can’t say no”, but these days he says he’s happy enough taking a walk on the promenade, for a smoke.
His deafness has other compensations. He believes it has changed the way he perceives space and given him a sharper sense of light and shade. “I was always struck by how Picasso had no interest in music,” he says, “he was tone deaf. But then he had this incredible grasp of tone in drawing, of chiaroscuro. He may not have been able to hear them, but he could see more tones than almost anyone who has lived.”
Picasso remains a touchstone for Hockney, particularly the late work, which as he gets older he sees ever more clearly. “I went in 1973 to see the original show of his late paintings in Avignon,” he recalls. “I went with Douglas Cooper, who was quite a Picasso scholar. He was telling me how terrible the paintings were, but I said I would like to go all the same. So we went over there and Douglas is going on and on about how poor the work is. And eventually I said: ‘Do you mind if I just have a look for a while?’ So I looked around for a bit. And I went back to Douglas, and I said: ‘You may not be interested, but these are paintings about being an old man.’ There was a painting of an old guy, his legs crooked, his balls on the floor, a woman trying to hold him up. I said these are the themes only the greatest take on: Rembrandt, Van Gogh. You wouldn’t get it in Andy Warhol.”
He’d never say as much, but it is clear which of these camps Hockney would prefer to be seen in. Since his own early indirect association with pop art he has been dogged by critical suggestions of “light-heartedness”, as if that were a fatal flaw. Robert Hughes once described him as the “Cole Porter of contemporary art”, an epithet that his later work in particular undermines. He’s never been afraid of colour – “What’s the opposite?” he says. “Gloom, doom. Why would anyone want that?” – but the Yorkshire landscapes, full of unexpected oranges and purples, challenge him to find it in unexpected places. “Even in the winter up there, there is far more colour than you think,” he says. “You just have to know how to look.”
Talking to Hockney, you are struck by a kind of heroic optimism in that endeavour, one that goes defiantly against the grain of his innate scepticism. As friends and interviewers over the years will attest, he can get bogged down in particular irritations – the long-standing one is the smoking ban, against which he is a stubborn and passionate objector – but even while he is in the curmudgeonly depths of these obsessions, a smile dances around his mouth and eyes. It’s that, as much as anything, that always makes his career feel like the best kind of lark.
“As you get older,” he says, “it gets a bit harder to keep the spontaneity in you, but I work at it.” To this end, he has always been fond of jaunts. As a boy Hockney used to hang around with his brother John in the hope that their car-driving neighbour would give them a ride somewhere – perhaps to the spa town of Harrogate. The faded eroticism of spas – the subject of some early paintings – has stayed with him. He regularly takes the car ferry from Hull to Zeebrugge these days, often in order to visit the baths at Baden-Baden, which have become a kind of substitute for his halcyon Hollywood swimming pools. He drives, he says, “because that way you are in your own private space. I avoid the public because the English public is too aggressive these days for me”. Even so, the excursions sometimes serve to remind him of why he left England in the first place – “that meanness of spirit,” he says.
“The last time we went to the continent, we were coming back into Dover and I recalled those words of Cyril Connolly, who said that every time he returned from France to England he looked up at those cliffs and heard his headmaster’s voice booming: ‘Wipe that smile off your face, Connolly.’ I always have a bit of a sense of that, too.”
That thought, of course, sets him off in one of his intermittent rants against anti-smokers, punctuated by drags on his cigarette. “The cause of death is birth, and on your way there you might want to enjoy things…”
Can he recall his first drag?
“I was probably eight or nine. But I’ve smoked pretty regularly for 55 years. I don’t see a reason to stop now. It’s all gone dull, I think, Britain. We are being taken over by medico-fascists who want us all to live in germ-free clinics…”
Some of this anger seems to have a psychological root. He was, he says, watching a documentary the other evening in which four anti-smokers “were lined up to tell us they were saving lives, and I said to my sister: ‘Don’t they remind you of someone?’ She said: ‘Kenneth’ straightaway – my father.”
Hockney’s dad was, among other things, a great anti-smoker, though all his five children smoked like chimneys. Hockney may have rebelled against him in this way, but in others he seems to be growing more like his father. Kenneth Hockney, a clerk in Bradford, was a firm believer in international socialism and an eccentric letter-writer: he corresponded with Khruschev, Gandhi and Nasser as well as, routinely, with the Bradford Evening Telegraph. When Hockney received his first cheque for a painting he sent some money on to his parents and his father invested his portion in a consignment of Soviet watches.
Hockney has inherited some of his stubborn zeal, if not his politics. Our conversation is occasionally interrupted by outbursts of indignation. At one point I refer to the year 2003 as “two thousand and three”. Hockney winces as if in pain: “It’s twenty-oh-three, twenty-oh-three, that’s how we have always done it. To say it differently is to show you have no faith in the past or in the future.” In 1999, he confesses, he wrote a letter on this very point to the New York Times, which he believes took it on board. “But what I should have done was write to the BBC, which uses it at every opportunity. It makes me cringe – it shows their disregard for everything that has gone before…”
Does he feel he has become more like his father as he has become older, I wonder.
“I can certainly see the sense in him a bit more,” he suggests. “He was very eccentric. One time I came home at night and he was sat halfway down the street in one of our armchairs out of the front room, outside a phone box. I said: ‘Well, what are you doing?’ He said: ‘I put an ad in the paper to sell the billiard table and told people to ring this number between six and six thirty.’ At 6.30pm he wheeled the chair back up the street. It’s important to be comfortable, though, isn’t it?”
One of the great things about Hockney in California was that for all his freedom, creative energy and bleached-blond fame, a bit of him never forgot to see LA through Bradford eyes. He tells a story about his mother coming to stay with him for the first time, after his father died, when she was in her sixties. After two or three days, she said: “It’s strange – all this lovely weather and yet you never see any washing out.”
He prides himself in comparable Wallace and Gromit common sense. “When I’m in LA,” he confides at one point, “I always keep a pair of slippers by the bed, because I heard once that the only way you get hurt in an earthquake is from cut glass on the floor. And I’ve got a manual override on the garage door. The last big earthquake they had, Beverley Hills was without electricity for a day, and no one could get their cars out of the garage – except me.” In his car he always keeps his emergency supplies: “a bottle of water and a carton of cigarettes”.
He misses the road trips most. “I grew to love the desert,” he says. “The people who live there are independent and mad. I remember driving through it playing Handel’s Messiah, loud, and thinking: ‘This music is great in the desert.’ But then of course all religions have been born in the desert. Some bloke sitting on the bare surface of the earth contemplating the cosmos.”
Hockney was raised a Methodist but gave it up long ago. “I’m not anti-religious though,” he says. “In fact I think we are going to pay a heavy price for the decline of it. It’s why the green movement has taken off, I think. It’s a quasi-religion, it seems to me. That the apocalypse will all be down to our bad conduct, our bad behaviour. When I hear that I think: ‘Here we go again.'”
His paintings, particularly his tree paintings – some of them 40ft across, made up of a series of portable smaller canvases that he can work on outdoors – look like the best kind of out-of-body experiences, I suggest, a form of meditation. What is he thinking when he sitting in those Yorkshire woods?
“When you really look at nature like I have been doing,” he says, “I mean really look, then you quickly realise we are just insects, stupid little creatures. And you do get a bit of humility. They chopped down some of the trees I had been drawing. I was angry at first, but you then realise that you have another subject: is it dead, is it not? The wood is always alive if you look.”
He always seemed an eternal summer artist. Which season does he favour now?
“These days,” he says, “I find that at the end of one season you are very much ready for the next. Part of it has to do with timing. In the winter in Bridlington you only have seven hours a day to paint, but in the summer you have 18 hours.”
One of his excursions recently took him right to the far tip of Norway, where it never got dark. “There’s a place where you can watch the sun at midnight that is like the edge of the world. You go up there in this mist and all these people are walking silently up there.”
“Well, the food isn’t so good.”
While he was in Norway he went to see an Edvard Munch painting of the sunrise in Oslo. Typically he was fascinated by the mechanics of it. “He’d got lines in it that cameras could never see, but we could – and of course in Oslo in June, Munch could look at the sun for a lot longer than Van Gogh could at Arles.”
Or even Hockney in Bridlington. He says he is planning to paint a “very big” sunrise for the Royal Academy show – the iPhone pictures are part of his feeling his way toward that. There has always been a bit of high-level schmaltz about Hockney – he’s long had a soft spot for the romanticism of Casper David Friedrich – but does he approach his new dawn with a bit of trepidation?
“I’m well aware that most pictures of sunrises are clichés, but I’m also aware that a sunrise is never a cliché in nature,” he says. “So that’s the challenge.”
How much does that effort feel like a rage against the dying of the light, I wonder.
Hockney grins. “Actually, I think I have more energy now than I did 10 years ago,” he says. “I’ll always run up the stairs, especially for a cigarette.”