During the Second World War, when paper was scarce, seven-year-old David Hockney (b. 1937) used to creep downstairs early in the morning to draw. ‘He drew figures, streets, houses, landscapes and cartoons on the white edge of Dad’s newspaper, mum’s magazine or whatever comics arrived that day,’ writes John Hockney, David’s younger brother by two years. ‘For family members, there was gentle irritation their mint copy had been interfered with.’
It was not until David got his first sketch book at the age of 10 that his parents understood that this practice was more than compulsive doodling.
John Hockney is the author of the soon-to-be published memoir Never Worry What the Neighbours Think. The title is taken from his outspoken socialist father, who resolutely ploughed his own furrow and instilled a similar sensibility in his five children (often to the indignation of their more conventionally minded mother, Laura).
Part biography, part reflection on what it is like to grow up with a genius in a religious, working-class home in Bradford, it is a candid account that is told with rueful humour.
At the heart of the book is father Kenneth, a man of sharp intellect and striking naivety — as well as being a crusader against large and small injustices. He was a prolific letter-writer — Mahatma Gandhi, Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev were all the beneficiaries of his wry wisdom. The Pope was advised to sell his gold telephone and give the money to the Mexican poor, while his outrage over the Suez Canal crisis resulted in a Christmas card from President Nasser of Egypt.
‘Being with David was like having another pair of eyes; he's always looking and sees things we don’t’ — John Hockney
When the private members’ bill to suspend the death sentence went through parliament in 1965, Kenneth, who was a tireless campaigner against capital punishment, was invited to the House of Commons by the Labour politician Sidney Silverman to witness the event.
Yet Kenneth Hockney was also endearingly unworldly: after his death, John discovered a letter to the manager of the supermarket Morrisons, praising the perforation marks of Izal toilet rolls. ‘They always tear to perfection,’ he had written.
Kenneth’s unconventional nature was inherited by his two younger sons. David, who is now in his eighties, continues to be a complex, gifted and outspoken public figure, holding forth on a number of issues — not least his militant support for smoking. John, meanwhile, is a musician and professional storyteller.
John says that David understood early on that as a working-class boy from Bradford he would have to fight to become an artist. At grammar school he purposely failed his exams so that he would be allowed to go to Bradford College of Art, where he contrived an eccentric persona based on his hero, the artist Stanley Spencer (1891-1956).
A rare lithograph self-portrait from this time (below) depicts the 17-year-old artist with an uncharacteristic mop of black hair (pre the peroxide hipster of his Royal College of Art years), peering out from behind Spencer-like, owlish glasses. Hockney gave this first attempt at a self-portrait to his mother, Laura, before it was passed down to John, and the print makes it clear that the young artist was establishing himself as a serious contender.
‘It is very solemn,’ says John, ‘not like David’s personality. I think he was trying to say something about what he wanted to be.’ The yellow background and pink carpet, John suspects, were inspired by the 19th-century Nabis painter Edouard Vuillard. ‘We certainly didn’t have exotic colours like that at home,’ he says.
In fact, what comes across in everything John writes about is the paucity of colour in ration-book Britain — from the grey-flowered linoleum on the floor of the boys’ bare attic bedroom to the shock of seeing Laurel and Hardy perform live at the Bradford Alhambra. ‘We’d only ever seen them in black and white, and Olly had this bright red face,’ recalls John. ‘He was seriously unwell by then.’
It would also seem to explain David’s escape to California, and also, perhaps, his virtuosity as a colourist. ‘Absolutely,’ agrees John. ‘Bradford was mucky. That was the reality, but we would go out to the countryside and being with David was like having another pair of eyes; he’s always looking and sees things we don’t.’
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Was David difficult to live with? ‘No,’ says John, ‘but he drove my mother to distraction. He began printing linocuts and my mother’s mangle was the perfect thing to put the paper through. Of course he didn’t wipe it so all the laundry was ruined.’
The chapter in the book on his famous older brother is titled ‘Devotion Costs’ because, explains John, ‘art is an obsession with David.’