Included in David Hockney’s landmark exhibition A Bigger Picture at the Royal Academy of Arts in 2012, Walnut Trees is a radiant love letter to the East Yorkshire landscape. Painted in 2006, two years after his pivotal return from California, it captures the glorious late April sunshine on the track leading from Woldgate Woods to the village of Boynton. With loose, impressionistic, brushstrokes, Hockney pays tribute to the unspoiled beauty of his homeland: its lonely paths, wide blue skies and majestic, ancient woodlands, each as bright and vivid as his childhood memories. Described by Marco Livingstone at the time as ‘the most commanding [works] he has ever made’, Hockney’s depictions of the Wolds between 2005 and 2008 marked a major new chapter in his forty-year-long career (M. Livingstone, ‘Home to Bridlington: Routes to a Private Paradise’, in David Hockney: Just Nature, exh. cat., Kunsthalle Würth, 2009, p. 188). The artist had made repeated visits home in the years leading up to his mother’s death in 1999, and was struck by the ever-changing splendour of his native county. Returning in 2004, he began to work outdoors, channelling the influence of Constable, Van Gogh, Monet, Claude and Turner as he captured the shifting light and seasons. Though saturated with the same life-affirming glow as his Californian paintings, these canvases were poignant elegies to home, infused with new passion, grandeur and technical bravura. With its lyrical song of spring, Walnut Trees is a fitting testament to this rebirth.
Hockney was born in West Yorkshire, but felt closely connected to the county’s Eastern region. As a boy, he had spent two summers working on farms during the harvest in East Riding: ‘even then I noticed that the scenery was quite beautiful’, he recalls. ‘The rolling hills, the little valleys’ (D. Hockney, quoted in L. Weschler, ‘Sometime Take the Time’, in David Hockney: Hand Eye Heart, exh. cat., L. A. Louver Gallery, California, 2005, p. 45). Though Hockney would return to Yorkshire at various points throughout his career, it was not until the late 1990s that he began to paint it – initially at the request of his friend Jonathan Silver, who was battling the final stages of cancer at the time. Silver’s death in 1997, closely followed by that of his mother, would ultimately give rise to a newfound yearning for northern England. Keen to explore landscape painting afresh, Hockney had toured Norway, Iceland, Spain and Italy during the early 2000s, before realising that he was simply ‘painting views … sight-seeing’. Returning to Yorkshire in 2004, where he spent time in Bridlington with his sister, he began to depict his surroundings again. Finally, he recalls, ‘I was painting the land, land that I myself had worked. I had dwelt in those fields, so that out there, seeing for me, necessarily came steeped in memory’ (D. Hockney, quoted in L. Weschler, True to Life: Twenty-Five Years of Conversation with David Hockney, Berkeley 2008, p. 199).
Over the following years, Hockney would explore the most rural corners of the East Yorkshire landscape in almost every available medium: from watercolour, paint and pencil to photography, film and digital inkjet print. The result was not only one of his most distinctive bodies of work, but also an extraordinary technical tour de force – from 2008, he would even make revolutionary use of the iPad and iPhone as drawing tools. Despite his forays into computer technology, however, Hockney’s work remained firmly grounded in the lessons of art history. In 2006, the year of the present painting, he attended a major Constable exhibition at the Tate Britain in London, where he was particularly inspired by the artist’s full-size oil sketches for his famous six-foot landscapes. He also stood in wonder before Monet’s Nymphéas (Waterlillies) on a trip to the newly refurbished Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris. One of his most important influences, however, remained Van Gogh: a long-standing source of inspiration. In particular, Hockney admired his ability to capture the eternal flux of the landscape. ‘[Van Gogh] said that had lost the faith of his fathers, but somehow found another in the infinity of nature’, he explained. ‘It’s endless. You see more and more’ (D. Hockney, quoted in M. Gayford, A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney, London 2011, p. 32). In California, Hockney had missed the thrill of the changing seasons; back in Yorkshire, they seemed more beautiful and vital than ever before. Verdant and sun-kissed, Walnut Trees is alive with the joy of this revelation.