In autumn 1968, David Hockney and his partner Peter Schlesinger went to stay with the film director Tony Richardson in the south of France. Richardson’s home, hidden in the forest above Saint Tropez Bay, was a magical place. Cut off from the world like Prospero’s island, it had, said one guest, ‘a throbbing, almost liquid stillness. You get the feeling that nothing bad could ever happen here.’
The director filled Le Nid du Duc (‘The Night Owl’s Nest’) with an international art crowd, as well as his friends and lovers. Days consisted of long lunches by the pool, while nights were given over to outrageous parties. Richardson numbered the writers Christopher Isherwood and Jean Genet and the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson among his friends; his lovers included the actress Jeanne Moreau and the playwright Terence Rattigan.
Hockney had met Richardson in 1966, when he was invited to design sets for the director’s production of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi at the Royal Court Theatre in London. As fellow northerners (both were from West Yorkshire) who loved California, they instantly hit it off and became firm friends. Hockney’s good nature and natural inquisitiveness made him the perfect foil for Richardson’s acerbic banter.
Schlesinger thought otherwise. Richardson, he later recalled, could be cruel, ‘directing his house party as he would one of his plays or movies, and he loved guests who performed well. No extrovert, I failed the audition and he took a great dislike to me.’
However, that Indian summer, Le Nid du Duc was the perfect hideaway for Hockney and his lover. Captivated by the warm light and dramatic scenery, the artist photographed the property from various angles, and these images became source material for some of his most famous works, notably the 1972 painting Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), featuring Schlesinger.
One morning, Hockney photographed the sunrise over the small port of Sainte-Maxime, just north of Saint Tropez Bay, capturing its flesh-coloured buildings and the Mediterranean lapping gently at the gravel beach. ‘I took a photograph of the scene and I was so impressed with it that I just painted it like that… It is the one painting where I didn’t try to dominate the scene,’ he said later.
The resulting work, Early Morning, Sainte-Maxime, is one of four landscape paintings Hockney made that autumn. Completed in 1969, it was exhibited at the artist’s retrospective at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1970 and has never been on public view in London since. It is offered at auction for the first time in more than 30 years.
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The work’s amplified colour and shimmering surface reveal that even during Hockney’s most naturalistic phase, which culminated in some of his most celebrated double portraits — among them Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, 1971 — the artist was always, at heart, a visionary landscape painter.