Maurice! Celia! David! Gregory! It’s hard to imagine a day would come when they’d all be back together, nestling elbow to elbow and smiling for the camera, but the opening of David Hockney: Drawing From Life at the National Portrait Gallery in London has brought about a landmark reunion of the art world (and for, we suspect, a fraction of the price of a certain other imminent get-together).
Hockney’s new exhibition, which opens today, gathers around 150 works by the 82-year-old artist; most of them, completed across more than half a century, are either self portraits or images of three of his most important muses: textile designer Celia Birtwell (she of the iconic “Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy”, 1970-71), his business manager Gregory Evans and printer Maurice Payne (if you want to see Hockney's recent portrait of Ed Sheeran you’ll have to pop up the road to the concurrent show at Annely Juda in Dering Street).
As you’d expect, the exhibition is a dazzling demonstration of Hockney’s unwavering eye and surety of line – be it pencil, pen, pastel, ink, or, latterly, iPad app – but what’s more touching is the show’s celebration of these three lifelong friendships. Each sitter gets a wall or a room, as does Hockney’s mother, Laura, his unwavering champion and favourite subject, who died in 1998. We see them as fresh-faced young things, all Byronic curls and bee-stung lips and gaping necklines, but gradually, as we move through the decades, we watch their jawlines soften and their shoulders slump, right through to recent portraits made in Los Angeles and Normandy, Hockney’s home since 2019 – a move for which he gave a very Hockneyish justification – which are drawn in brown ink as a nod to Rembrandt (not too shabby on the late-portrait front himself).
Of course, there were complexities to these friendships – Hockney and Evans have romantic history (the art world’s Ross and Rachel?!) though now they’re strictly platonic (OK, Rachel and Joey) – but the four have remained confidants and collaborators to the present day. And yes, fine, the Friends analogy is a stretch (though, for the record, they look like they'd make an excellent sofa panel on Gogglebox) but the exhibition still brings about plenty to celebrate. As Birtwell said herself of Hockney, “In my opinion he’s the best draughtsman we have working now. It’s a great honour to be drawn by him.” Long may he continue.
David Hockney: Drawing From Life, National Portrait Gallery, London, 27 February to 28 June, npg.org.uk
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