David Hockney takes two crumpled cigarette butts from his pocket and places them on the lunch table. “You’re disgusting,” says his lifelong friend Celia Birtwell, who has featured in many of his paintings. “Horrible! Horrible!” However, the noxious objects he has placed next to our sandwiches aren’t what they seem. “They’re not real,” says Hockney. “They’re sculptured. They’re from a gallery in Berlin.” He beams.
Hockney, on a brief visit to Britain from his beloved newish home in Normandy, has popped in to see an exhibition of his work at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Hockney’s Eye: The Art and Technology of Depiction is open for him on an otherwise closed day, with select curators and friends awaiting his arrival. The mood is one of waiting for a royal audience, and everyone gathers round in mild awe when he finally makes his entrance, in a wheelchair pushed by his partner, Jean-Pierre Gonçalves de Lima, known as JP.
The artist, now 84, is dressed in typically stylish attire: blue and yellow check suit, light blue socks, white shoes, red tie, flat cap and big round gold-framed spectacles. As we go to look at portraits in a low-lit gallery, the mood is low-key. But everything changes when Birtwell arrives, unmistakably the same woman who stands against greenish blinds, her gold hair catching the sunlight, in Hockney’s 1970-71 masterpiece Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy.
At the time, Birtwell was married to Ossie Clark. She is a noted textile designer and her husband was a fashion guru. He is depicted sprawling in a chair with Percy the white cat on his lap, while Birtwell stands, engaging Hockney’s eye in dark blue and red. Hockney later drew and painted Celia alone, many times, in different clothes and in the nude. She kisses him in his wheelchair. She is white-haired, radiant and tiny – I realise Hockney made her seem much bigger by having Clark seated.
Birtwell looks at Le Parc des Sources, Vichy, the best painting in this show, an expansive, eerily beautiful view of grass and trees. She asks Hockney when he painted it. “Just before I painted you!” he says, grinning up at her. “This was in my 1970 retrospective at the Whitechapel [Gallery]. And Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy wasn’t because I was still doing that.”
The painting shows two men sitting in metal chairs painted an enamel olive. They are looking at two rows of tall trees in a cool, misty morning light. “That’s Ossie Clark and Peter Schlesinger,” says Hockney. “Peter was wearing a snakeskin jacket.” Like so many of Hockney’s unforgettable paintings from the early 1970s, this work is fraught with tension and mystery. Schlesinger was Hockney’s lover. There is a third, empty chair on the left. Was that Hockney’s? Was it symbolic?
“Yeah, it was,” he says. “I had got up to do the painting.” The empty seat has a haunting presence, like Van Gogh’s chair. As Hockney observes, chairs can represent people: “They have arms and legs.” Hockney points to a divide in the painting, where the lawn meets the brown foreground. “It’s like a picture down to there, isn’t it?” he says. “Then there’s some seats in front.” So it’s as if the two men are sitting looking at a huge painting of a park. “It’s a pictures within pictures kind of a thing,” says Hockney.
In the next gallery, the artist’s iPad pictures of flowers morph into each other on a screen that sits among the museum’s 17th-century Dutch paintings of blooms. “The first year I was at the Royal College of Art,” he recalls, “I went to lots of small museums in London because I thought I had to catch up, as they didn’t have them in Bradford or Leeds. Every little one in London I have been in. Do you think we could just go out for a cigarette?”
Outside, Hockney lights a Davidoff. “They are only sold in Germany and Switzerland, maybe the Netherlands,” says JP, who’s wearing a fawn suit and blue patterned shirt, his brown hair a bit wild and his beard lightly dappled with grey. “I get them sent by Hans in Germany,” says Hockney. “He sends me 20 cartons at a time – 2,000 cigarettes – and I keep them in drawers.” Is it an addiction? “No, I enjoy it. Smoking is a very pleasurable thing. Why go against it? Loads of people get lung cancer who don’t smoke.”
Smoking, for Hockney, is a symbol of the freedom of the 1960s. He was a pioneer in this era of liberation, perhaps the first artist to portray male gay life without apology or melodrama, just the way he and his friends happened to live. His portrait of Patrick Procktor shows his fellow artist smoking in an almost Wildean pose.
Hockney traces the equation of cigarettes and bohemia to 19th-century Paris: “In Boston, they have that marvellous painting by Renoir of a couple dancing. If you look carefully, there are lots of cigarette butts on the floor. They smoked while they danced. They had a good time – they did!” He laughs.
Hockney is keen for JP to join him for a second cigarette. Smoking is why he lives in France: what he sees as a basic freedom is now restricted in Britain and the US. The two have only been this side of the Channel for a couple of days and already they have found rules to rage against. They had dinner with the master of Downing College and were told that smoking is banned on University of Cambridge grounds. The exhibition posters that are all over the city use a picture that was cropped to remove the cigarette in his hand. His era, says Hockney, “was the freest time, probably ever. I now realise it’s over, so I’ve locked myself away in a nice house in Normandy where I can smoke and do what I want. And that’s where I’m going to stay. Shall we have some lunch?”
The museum restaurant is closed on Mondays, so lunch is from Marks & Spencer. Hockney is missing French food: he tells me how much he loves andouillette (tripe sausage). I ask about his home town of Bradford being named the next UK city of culture. He didn’t know and isn’t too excited about it. “Well, I haven’t lived in Bradford since the 50s,” he says. “The only time I go is to see Saltaire.”
He’s referring to Salts Mill, a Victorian industrial building in the village of Saltaire reclaimed by his late friend Jonathan Silver. Its art gallery reliably has Hockneys on view and is now showing his pictures of the Normandy spring, organised into a strip like the Bayeux tapestry. So Hockney does make a cultural contribution to Bradford and may even have helped its bid. “It must be the first exhibition they’ve had direct from the Orangerie in Paris,” says the artist.
As he quaffs rhubarb juice, the conversation among him and his friends heads to Normandy and then to Yorkshire, where he and JP are planning to visit Hockney’s sister Margaret.
“She’s 87 but she’s still driving,” he says. “She can park.”
“Because she’s got a disabled parking sticker,” adds Birtwell. “They’re very useful.”
Margaret Hockney is deaf and lip-reads, it transpires. Her brother’s deafness is perhaps one reason why he becomes quiet during our chatty lunch and starts looking at his latest works on his paint-spattered iPad. “Deafness is a handicap that is still not properly appreciated,” JP tells me.
The images on Hockney’s iPad include a photograph of a portrait he has just done of Harry Styles. During the pandemic, the artist depicted nature – spring’s arrival in Normandy and flowers blooming – in sparkling iPad paintings that were an inspirational pick-me-up at a time of crisis. But in November, he returned to portraiture, and to oil paint on canvas.
In fact, he says, as we look at his Styles portrait, these works are done purely with paint. There is no drawing, no initial outline. He just creates people in colour. The pop star, he adds, was a new challenge, since he prefers to paint friends. “I think if you know a face – you have to know a face a bit – I don’t know his face that well. Everybody’s face is a bit different.” He pauses to gather his thoughts and finally says: “I’m still not sure what people look like.”
It’s a surprising remark, full of doubt, from someone who has spent his life trying to capture a likeness, an essence. It helps to explain why he has portrayed a friend such as Birtwell so many times, as if he is still trying to get at the truth. It’s also why he is suspicious of photography: it tells us what people or landscapes or objects look like, as if that were a simple, fixed fact. By contrast, the modern artist Hockney most adores is Picasso, whose cubism is a rejection of simple photographic pictures, a search for what things are really like.
The first Picasso he saw was a reproduction of Weeping Woman when he was 12. He puts his hands against his face to imitate her holding a handkerchief to her scrunched features. When curator Jane Munro brings Hockney a Picasso drawing from the Fitzwilliam’s stores, he holds it reverently. It’s a portrait of dancer Lydia Lopokova, done in the Spaniard’s neoclassical style. It’s perfect – but Picasso soon started distorting faces again. “He was just drawn to something else,” says Hockney. “He had something else to do.”
Is this also true of Hockney, who in his mid-80s has returned from landscapes to freehand portraits? “I’m always doing something else,” he says. “Yeah. They can argue all they want about the past, but I just get on to something else.”
• Hockney’s Eye is at The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, until 29 August. A Year in Normandie is at Salts Mill, Saltaire, until 18 September and Love Life Drawings is at The Holburne Museum, Bath, until 18 September.