'positively prophetic in its fluent use of line, its bright colour, its technical experimentation and in its direct, confident, quirky self-presentation' (Mark Glazebrook, former Director of the Whitechapel Gallery)
This early lithograph belongs to a small group of self-portraits which David Hockney made at the age of seventeen, while a student at Bradford College of Art. It depicts the young artist seated in the front bedroom of his childhood home at 18 Hutton Terrace, Eccleshill, which he had converted into a makeshift studio. This arrangement caused his mother Laura some distress. Lamenting in her diary ‘Our front bedroom is in a terrible state. What it is to have an artist son!!’, she goes on, 'He is doing a full-length portrait of himself and has the wardrobe mirror dismantled and propped up where he can see it – a table littered with paints – brushes – etc – but he dropped paint on the carpet just where he hadn’t covered it with newspapers!’. The painting to which she refers is the earliest of the self-portraits, a three-quarter view of the artist, with a tousled fringe, executed in the muted tones of the Euston Road School. The youthful reticence conveyed by this painting is very different to the self-assured, frontal pose of the lithograph which followed shortly after. At the time Hockney was a great admirer of the painter Stanley Spencer, and in his printed self-portrait he self-consciously models his appearance on that of the older artist. With his hair cut in a fringe, wearing Spencer-esque prescription glasses, Hockney shows his feeling of confraternity with Spencer, declaring his newfound identity as an artist.
Hockney was introduced to lithography by his tutor Derek Stafford, who regarded the young artist as one of the most talented students he had ever taught. One of three lithographs from 1954, Self-portrait is one of his earliest forays into printmaking, an artform which Hockney has employed extensively throughout his career. This lithograph, comprising five separate zinc plates, one for each colour, is technically ambitious for a first attempt. Undaunted by the complexities of inking and registration, the young Hockney clearly relished its facility for vibrant areas of flat colour and patterned effect. Evoking the intimiste domestic interiors of Vuillard and Bonnard, he transmutes the familiar surroundings of his Bradford home into hues of saffron yellow and magenta red, an imaginative leap which perfectly illustrates his credo that ‘the moment you cheat for the sake of beauty you know you’re an artist’.
Handprinted by the young artist, no doubt using an art department press, the very few surviving proofs are often slightly misregistered, with corrections in pencil or ink, the margins ink thumbed and a little tulgey. Of the five known impressions, three are printed with a flesh tone on the hands and face. The remaining two, including this example, are pale yellow in these areas. Unlike the professionally printed etchings and lithographs he would later make with master printers from around the world, Self-portrait is endearingly handmade, and a very personal testament of the young artist. It can be no accident that Hockney chose to give this print to his much-loved mother, Laura Hockney, who in turn, on her death in 1999, bequeathed it her youngest son, John Hockney.