You may have heard of, or even been to see, the new David Hockney exhibition at Tate Britain in London. One of this country’s most loved and respected artists, Hockney was born in Bradford in 1937, studied at the Royal College of Art in London and now divides his time between California and London. However, he’s never forgotten his ties to Yorkshire and spent quite some time living in Bridlington on the coast. The world’s largest permanent collections of Hockney artworks is housed in Salts Mill, in the UNESCO World Heritage village of Saltaire, not far from Bradford city.
I first saw this painting of Salts Mill at the Royal Academy ‘A Bigger Picture’ exhibition in 2012. Over 150 Hockney works were displayed, mostly of the natural landscape he saw around the Yorkshire Wolds near Bridlington and it made a tremendous impact on me. Huge oil-paintings of trees, giant iPad drawings of abundant May blossom, a video of a country road, cow parsley gently nodding in the breeze. I next saw it hanging at the entrance to the 1853 Gallery in Salts Mill in 2105, and again just a few weeks ago.
The 1853 Gallery is named after the year that Sir Titus Salt, a Yorkshire industrialist, built a textile mill and village to house his workers beside the River Aire. The mill closed in 1986 and was bought by Jonathan Silver, who, along with his wife, Maggie, converted it into the art gallery and retail emporium it is today. He had known Hockney for many years and their friendship resulted in the huge collection of Hockney’s art on display here.
It’s like no other gallery I’ve ever seen, with its unique combination of Hockney paintings, etchings, drawings, screens and even a very curious design for a post-box. There are family portraits, including a poignant one of his mother and father, informal sketches such as a ‘get-well’ vase of sunflowers, strange illustrations for fairy-tales, vibrant landscapes of the Yorkshire countryside, large murals, a colourful Caribbean screen and paintings of Salts Mill itself. All this is airily displayed amidst highly-decorative Burmantofts Pottery (1881-1904), produced in Leeds and a vast selection of art books, artists’ materials and stationery.
Hockney permeates Salts Mill. Cafe in the Opera has paintings of the mill beneath quirky light-fittings. The logo for Salts Diner, the informal cafe, is a sketch of a dog and customers eat and drink beside Hockney portraits. However, it is the 3rd Floor Gallery that attracts many fans of this multi-media artist. It is here that The Arrival of Spring is displayed in a vast space that enables this unique collection of 49 iPad drawings to shine. Hockney says, “I planned to record the spring arriving in 2011, having observed its arrival for seven years on Woldgate, a small, single track road that runs from Bridlington to Kilham.”
He describes using the iPad whilst sitting in his car, then printing out the pictures at five feet high. “I began to realise that using the iPad could be a very good method of recording all the changes that I knew would occur on this quiet road.” Many of the pictures show one week in early May, “… when the cow parsley (Queen Anne’s Lace) seems to grow a few feet in about a week … a very exciting time I thought, especially the hawthorn, of which there’s a lot in Woldgate.” There is something universally appealing about these drawings. The vibrant colours, the swirling lines, the size, the sequential symmetry draws the eye and encourages visitors to tarry awhile to admire their bosky charm.
Hockney drew not just in spring but winter and summer too; there are pictures of rutted tyre marks in the melting snow and bright sunlight casting shadows across the road. A tree stump features in many of the drawings. Hockney called it ‘The Totem’ and was very upset when vandals used a chain saw to cut it down in 2012. An article in The Telegraph says, ‘It is not hard to guess that the Totem had been a surrogate for the artist himself. Now that it was lying prone on the ground that seemed even more the case. When Hockney was told the news, he took to his bed in a black depression. He has described his state of mind at that time as being, “ … very dark. I felt about as bad as I had in many years”. However, this thoughtless destruction lead him to continue ‘The Arrival of Spring’; he drew the fallen trunk in the winter and continued working on the sequence for many more months.
This exhibition is on permanent display at Salts Mill,though individual pieces may be on loan to galleries around the world. Entry to the mill is free and a visit to Saltaire is highly recommended. It’s a fascinating village, with locals taking great pride in their industrial heritage. I’ve no idea what Titus Salt would make of Hockney but I really love his exuberant, quirky, life-enhancing art. Go see it sometime and hopefully you’ll be entranced too.
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