At the beginning of January, 2012, the words "David Hockney" are going to be on everyone's lips. This is because he is the star of one of the biggest shows of the work of a single artist ever mounted by London's Royal Academy.
This will not be a retrospective, but an exhibition that consists almost entirely of new work, work that includes not only the drawings, watercolours and oils that one would expect from this artist, but huge works created using the new medium of the iPad, alongside extraordinary films shot on 18 high-definition cameras. None of this is a surprise to me, because as his neighbour in Yorkshire, not far from his present home town of Bridlington, or 'Brid' as it is locally known, I have been privileged to watch this new work develop over the last five years.
For a man who is approaching 75, David has the youthfulness and vigour of a far younger man. This is because he is so utterly engaged in his life as an artist. Nothing is boring to him and everything around him is a subject. As soon as he wakes up in his bedroom overlooking les toits de Bridlington, his eyes are at work, noticing an especially beautiful seaside dawn, or the way the light catches an object on a table, or his dressing-gown hanging on the bathroom door.
Where once he would have reached out for his sketchpad, to capture whatever had taken his eye with pencil and paper, now he keeps his IPad on the bedside table, enabling him to paint a picture using all the colours of the palette. It's incredible to think that Steve Jobs first presented the IPad to the world in January, 2010; David got one the following March, and by the Autumn of that year, through the medium of the App 'Brushes', he was having a major show of IPhone and IPad paintings at the Yves St Laurent Foundation in Paris.
Since then he has also taken to making films, one of which is a colourful musical starring members of the Royal Ballet, all filmed in his studio in Bridlington. Recently he showed them in Los Angeles to friends of his in the movie business. "I told them," he said, "that Hollywood had a new rival in Bridlywood."
I first met David Hockney in 1964, when I was a schoolboy, very green, having spent my entire childhood in the Wolds of Yorkshire, a remote area of Northern England to the east of York. I was up from my school, Eton College, for a day in London. My mother was friends with Sheridan Dufferin who was the co-owner of the Kasmin Gallery, then the trendy new gallery in Bond Street, and on these occasional trips up to town I used to go and hang out there.
Kasmin represented Hockney, and I was fascinated by his paintings with their childish figures and graffiti-like use of letters and words on the canvas. I was even more intrigued when Hockney actually walked into the gallery. With his different coloured socks and his brightly coloured clothes, his bleached hair and his big glasses, he certainly stood out from the crowd.
I was introduced to him by Kasmin and he was very sweet and Yorkshire, and after that, all I wanted was to own one of his pictures, but when I asked my mother if she would buy me one, she thought I'd gone mad. It was £200 - a fortune then - nor did she understand why I should want a painting of two men having a shower. In the end she paid a fiver for an etching called Man, which was of a man's head perched on two enormous legs. It was the first work of art I ever owned.
Over the years, apart from coming across him at various London parties, I didn't really see much of Hockney again until one day in the summer of 2005, when my telephone rang in Yorkshire, and it was Sheridan Dufferin's widow, Lindy, who is an artist herself, telling me that she was at the bottom of my drive with David Hockney and could she bring him to tea?
I was delighted of course and excited to meet him again and he hardly drew breath during the next hour as he enthused about the beauty of the Yorkshire Wolds and his excitement at discovering the joys of painting landscape again. He was also very funny. He had, for example, developed an obsession with the local newspaper, the Driffield Times, and its lurid headlines which would he would see on posters outside post offices or sweetshops in the local villages, headlines like DRIFFIELD STEAM ROLLER HORROR; HUMAN EAR FOUND IN YORKS CAR; SEX TRADE MOVES TO LEAFY SUBURBS and, most sinister of all, considering you could wait all day just to see one car in most of these villages, MAYHEM ON THE STREETS FEARED. "We've renamed the Driffield Times," he told us, "the NEWS OF THE WOLDS."
He also told me how much he had enjoyed The Big House, a book I had just written about my family home, Sledmere House. "I love the bit which you couldn't tell your mother about." He was referring to a story I had told about my mother's penchant for employing young men in the house who had come from what were then known as 'Approved Schools'. One of them had come up to my room one night and asked if I would show him my bird. When I said I didn't own a bird, he had asked if he could look at my mouse. "But I don't have a mouse," I protested. "You know," he said, "in your pyjamas." I had written, "This was something I never told my mother about."
"There were lots of things I didn't tell my mother about," said David. "Like one afternoon I went to the cinema, and I was sitting there on my own, enjoying the film, when the man sitting next to me took hold of my hand and put it on his erect penis. I remember thinking "I can't tell my mother about this," but it did give me a life-long love of cinemas."
Over the next couple of years I got to know Hockney much better. He was totally involved in painting the Wolds and had become a familiar figure in the locality, working at his easel en plein air in all weathers, sometimes dressed in a paint-splattered suit and white cloth cap, othertimes in a long coat and floppy hat which gave him a Cezannish air. When I first went to watch him paint he was working on large watercolours, painted on several sheets of paper.
Then it was oils on four, six or eight canvases, finally graduating to the 50 on which the mighty Bigger Trees At Warter is painted on. He was up at dawn and worked till dark, his enthusiasm and exhilaration unbounded, often leaving his much younger assistant, Jean-Pierre, the only Parisien in Bridlington, exhausted. I found him totally inspiring and, encouraged by the fact that he had read and enjoyed The Big House, decided to ask if I could write a new biography of him.
Trying to persuade him to agree was no easy task. "I'm not really in the mood for reflection," he told me, "I've got too much to look forward to." When we had conversations about it in which he was encouraging, they always ended with the words "I'll let you know in a couple of weeks", or "I haven't quite made up my mind."
Then came the terrible day that they felled his favourite wood, which he was painting season by season. When I called him to commiserate, he was in a black mood and as good as told me to forget my project. I was not prepared to give up, however, and after a few more months of procrastination I finally went to him and said that I had to get on with my life, so could he just give me a yes or no. At which point, to my utter amazement, he said "all right you can do it then". I got up and kissed him three times. "That's a mafia kiss," I said, "to seal the deal."
And what a story it turned out to be....His fascinating childhood spent in wartime Bradford against a background of great struggle, owing to his father being a conscientious objector, and during which the entire family were almost wiped out by a bomb; the austere postwar period when the local authority consistently turned down his applications to go early to art school; his time at the Royal College of Art amongst the rebellious first generation of young post-war artists; his growing acceptance of his sexuality at a time when he could have gone to prison for being a homosexual, and his courageous use of his art as propaganda for the cause; and his extraordinary rise to fame and remarkable creativity against the background of his life in Swinging London, Gay California and Bohemian Paris.
Hockney told me he would never read it, - "why would I want to?" he asked me - and it was with some trepidation that, when it was finally completed and existed as a book, I gave him my only copy. It was on 5 November, so I was expecting some fireworks, but his only comment was, as he looked at the Snowdon portrait on the back, "That bloody gold lamé jacket."
On the day after he called me up to say that he'd read it all in one sitting, and he liked it. "There are only a couple of mistakes in it," he said. I waited with bated breath to find out what they were. "If you're going to Ilkely Moor, for example, the train doesn't go from Leeds Station, it's from the Exchange...", but by that time I was just breathing a heavy sigh of relief.
Follow Christopher Simon Sykes on Twitter: www.twitter.com/crykes