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Giorgia Scaturro journalist

At the beginning of 2020, a couple of weeks before Covid exploded, William and Kate, when they were still Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, were spotted inside the MyLahore restaurant in Bradford, deep in the north of England. The place proudly serves one of the best curries in the entire United Kingdom, according to accurate cuisine rankings; curiously enough, curry is an Indian plate which is no surprise when found in London, a multi-cuisine capital, but might be thought somewhat uncommon in the lands of Yorkshire, where people, for ages, fed on the famous pudding and cabbage. That public engagement from the young Prince and his wife was a tribute paid to the multi-ethnic society the UK has become. Bradford holds a unique social record in the entire Great Britain: it’s one of the three cities having the largest Pakistani population in the UK (c. 139,000, representing some 25% of the Bradford inhabitants). How is this census possible? It’s a matter of geography. Many miles south, in Wiltshire, there’s another city which shares the same name: Bradford-on-Avon, the original ‘Bradford’. The name, as many in the English vocabulary, comes from topography: it was a “broad-ford”, a big ford (crossing) on the River Avon. Extreme abundance of water meant the village became an important factory town during the Industrial Revolution. The textile industry, which requires lots of fresh water, grew so much that many people migrated north and founded a second Bradford, near Leeds, which today is more famous than the original one and, of course, has no “broad fords” whatsoever to relate to its name. The new Bradford, though, had ample supplies of locally mined coal to provide the power that the industry needed. Local sandstone  was also an excellent resource for building the mills, and by 1850, the population had reached 180,000; the town grew rapidly as workers were attracted by jobs in the textile mills. They were primarily British, but after World War II immigrants from the former colonies started to arrive: among them, the Pakistani were the bigger community, as they were also the lowest-paid workers. In few decades they had become the biggest ethnicity in the city. Before the royal visit of the couple, now upgraded to Prince and Princess of Wales, as the next in line to the British throne after King Charles III, the city was already famous for being the hometown of a most famous and relevant living British artist: David Hockney.


Long before Hockney would become a titan in the art world, his roots in Bradford planted the seeds of his creative journey. Born on July 9, 1937, David was the fourth of five children in a family of common people, but with progressist views: his father Kenneth was an accountant's clerk, who had been a conscientious objector in the war, while his mother Laura, a devout methodist and strict vegetarian. The backdrop of post-war Britain, with its mix of optimism and rebuilding, provided a canvas for David’s early inspirations: his artistic talent was evident early on, leading him to the Bradford College of Art and later to the prestigious Royal College of Art in London. There, Hockney began to develop his distinct style, a blend of pop art and expressionism that would come to define a significant part of his work. It was during these formative years that Hockney began exploring his identity, an aspect that would deeply influence his art.


The young David came out as gay when he was 23 while studying at the Royal College of Art: it was the Swinging Sixties. At the time homosexuality was still a crime in Great Britain. Some years before, the famous mathematician Alan Turing was forced to chemical castration because of his homosexuality. The country would decriminalise it only seven years after Hockney’s coming out, with the historical Sexual Offences Act of 1967. By then, Hockney had already explored the nature of gay love in his work, such as in the painting We Two Boys Together Clinging (1961), named after a poem by the American writer Walt Whitman. In 1963 he painted two men together in the Domestic Scene, Los Angeles, one showering while the other washes his back. It was quite a scandalous depiction, then. At the College, Hockney was featured in the exhibition New Contemporaries, which announced the arrival of British Pop Art. He was associated with the movement, but his early works display more expressionist elements which are more similar to some of Francis Bacon's works than Pop Art itself.


In the summer of 1966, while teaching at UCLA University, in California, Hockney met Peter Schlesinger, an art student who posed for paintings and drawings, and with whom he became romantically involved. Another of Hockney's romantic partners who was the subject of his work was Gregory Evans; the two met in 1971 and began a relationship in 1974. While no longer romantically involved, they still work together, with Evans managing the David Hockney Studio. Hockney's current partner is longtime companion Jean-Pierre Gonçalves de Lima. Also known as JP, he too works with Hockney in his studio as his chief assistant.

Life in an artist’s studio sometimes leads to tragedy, as well: in 2013, when Hockney was already 73, his 23-year-old assistant, Dominic Elliott, died as a result of drinking drain cleaner at Hockney's home in Bridlington, UK, where he was living at the time; he had earlier taken both drugs and alcohol. Hockney's partner at the time drove Elliott to Scarborough General Hospital where he later died. The inquest returned a verdict of death by misadventure, with no conviction for the presence of drugs, which was a relief for the Hockney. A couple of years later, though, he sold his house in Bridlington ending his connections with the town.

Death awaits you all even if you do smoke – D. Hockney


The ’60s and ’70s were decades of transformation and upheaval, mirroring the societal shift seen with the end of the Cold War era. In this dynamic period, Hockney made waves, quite literally, with his swimming pool paintings. These works, characterized by their bright, vivid colors and fluid depiction of water, catapulted Hockney to international fame. His soon-to-be famous pools changed the landscape of contemporary art, challenging traditional rules and conventions. His move to California in the 1960s, where he still lives from time to time, marked a pivotal moment, as the sunshine and lifestyle of the West Coast deeply influenced his artwork. The "California Dreaming" phase of Hockney's career reflected not only personal liberation but also a broader cultural movement towards openness and exploration. While he never married, Hockney’s sexuality has inspired much of his work, portraying intimate aspects of his relationships and the broader LGBTQ+ community. Hockney's family have been recurring subjects in his artwork, demonstrating the deep ties and affection he holds for them. Despite the global acclaim and the circles of the art elite in which he moves, Hockney has maintained a close connection to his roots in Bradford, often reflecting on how his upbringing in the north of England influenced his perspective and work.


Beyond his traditional art, Hockney has embraced technology with enthusiasm. As the decades passed, Hockney never settled into a single mode of expression. His curiosity led him to experiment with photography, creating photo collages he called "joiners," which deconstructed and reassembled moments in time, offering a multi-faceted view of reality. This innovative approach to capturing landscapes and portraits mirrored the evolving world around him, where technology and life became increasingly intertwined.

In December 1985 when Europe was still discovering Commodore 64, the first personal computer to be used at home, Hockney embraced the Quantel Paintbox, a computer program that allowed the artist to sketch directly onto the screen. The resulting work was featured in a BBC series, such was it avant-garde and futuristic. Since 2009, Hockney has painted hundreds of portraits, still lifes and landscapes using the Brushes iPhone and iPad application, at a time when tablets and smartphones were not so common. In 2010 and 2011, Hockney visited Yosemite National Park to draw its landscape on his Apple tablet. He also used an iPad to design a stained glass window at Westminster Abbey to celebrate the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. Hockney's interests extend beyond the visual arts; he has a profound love for opera, which has influenced his work in stage design. He has designed sets and costumes for numerous productions, including the likes of "The Magic Flute" and "Turandot", blending his artistic vision with the dramatic flair of the opera.


From a progressist, leftist, and LGBT icon, one would expect a strong position on smoking, something today regarded as unhealthy, conservative, and politically incorrect. In a quirkier vain, Hockney has instead been a vocal critic of smoking bans, arguing for the rights of smokers. His outspoken stance on this and other issues highlights his belief in personal freedom and individual rights, principles that resonate throughout his work and life. In 2005, already approaching his seventies, he went to Brighton, on the English Riviera, at the Labour Party conference, where he held up a sign stating "DEATH awaits you all even if you do smoke”: it created havoc among the healthy lifestyle-crazed leftist politicians. A couple of months before, he led a campaign against the Smoke Ban inside British pubs. The ban has since passed, but Hockney is still on the barricade: just recently, aged 87, he went on a public rant against UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak who announced a total ban on smoking in public spaces.


As Hockney's stature in the art world grew, so too did the financial value of his work, marking him not only as a cultural icon, but also as one of the wealthiest living artists. His journey through the art markets mirrors the economic ascent witnessed by disruptors: the intersection between artistic innovation and economic value. In November 2018, Hockney's prominence was solidified when his painting "Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)" sold at auction for 90.3 million US Dollars at Christie's in New York. The sale surpassed the previous auction record for a living artist of 58.4 million Dollars, held by Jeff Koons (also famous for having been the husband of Italian porn star Cicciolina) for one of his Balloon Dog sculptures. Hockney had originally first sold this painting for ‘just’ 20,000 Dollars in 1972. Hockney's wealth is today estimated at 150 million Dollars. While bohemian artists of the 19th century had miserable livings and died in poverty, the man from Bradford learnt its industrial city lesson. Back in 1978, he rented a home in Hollywood Hills, California; he later bought and expanded the house to include his studio. He also owned a 1,643-square-foot beach house in Malibu, which he sold in 1999 for about 1.5 million Dollars. The valuation of Hockney's works extends beyond the auction house; his digital paintings, innovative photo collages, and traditional canvases are held in high regard, fetching substantial sums in private sales and gallery showings alike. This economic success has allowed Hockney to explore his art freely, investing in new technologies and methods that continue to push the boundaries of what is possible in the visual arts.



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