Executed in 1971, during one of David Hockney’s greatest periods, the present work is an exquisite tribute to Sir David Webster: the former General Administrator of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Painted on the occasion of his retirement after an outstanding twenty-five-year tenure, it depicts Webster in the artist’s studio, seated before a glass table upon a Mies van der Rohe ‘MR’ chair. Rendered on a grand scale, the work unites Hockney’s flair for human observation with his lifelong passion for opera. Inviting stylistic comparison with the artist’s landmark double portraits produced between 1968 and 1975, it demonstrates the meticulous exploration of space, perspective, lighting and compositional drama that would eventually come to inform his own stage designs – for venues including Glyndebourne, the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the Royal Opera House itself. The vase of tulips – frequently interpreted as a symbol for Hockney – implicates the artist’s own presence within the painting, hinting at what was to become a rich dialogue with Webster’s creative legacy.
The early 1970s was an extraordinary time for Hockney. He had returned from California in 1968, having imbibed the glorious light and sun-drenched terraces of Los Angeles. Back in London, the lessons of the West Coast manifested themselves in his double portraits: a suite of seven masterpieces that showcased the artist’s newfound ‘naturalistic’ style. Rigorously interrogating the complexities of human perception, these works combined crisp spatial clarity and crystalline formal poise with curious optical games and enigmatic staging. The present work shares many of these properties, notably featuring the same glass table and vase of tulips as the 1969 painting Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott. In both, the tulips seem to float artificially upon the table’s translucent surface: a phenomenon that recalls the weightless illusionism of Hockney’s swimming pool paintings. This surreal quality is mirrored in his depiction of Webster, who appears to hover miraculously above the partially-invisible chair – interestingly, the artist used a similar Marcel Breuer design in Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (Tate, London), which he completed alongside the present work. Though Webster sits alone, the painting captures the sense of hyper-real interaction that lay at the heart of the double portraits: the tulips are startlingly anthropomorphic, as vivid, alive and conversational as another person in the room.
Portrait of Sir David Webster was the first of a rare handful of commissions completed by Hockney: he would not accept another until three decades later, when he painted Sir George and Lady Mary Christie of Glyndebourne for the National Portrait Gallery. As an avid opera fan, Hockney would certainly have connected with Webster’s story. Indeed, the two shared much in common: Webster, like Hockney, had been entranced by theatre and music in his youth, and had eventually left his home in the North of England for the excitement of London. After beginning his career in retail, he had served as Chairman of the Liverpool Philharmonic Society during the Second World War. His visionary leadership of the orchestra prompted an invitation to Covent Garden in the mid-1940s, where he persuaded Sadler’s Wells Ballet to take up residence, and set about establishing what was to become the Royal Opera company. Under his administration, the Royal Opera House was restored from a wartime dance hall into a world-class institution that hosted the finest international singers, dancers and conductors of its time. Webster was also President of the Wagner Society: a fact that would surely have appealed to Hockney, who made the pilgrimage to Bayreuth and religiously listened to the composer’s music.
Webster’s rejuvenation of opera in post-war Britain paved the way for Hockney’s own involvement with the medium. The artist had first dabbled in set design in 1966 for a production of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi at the Royal Court Theatre in London. It was not until 1975, however, that he took on his first opera project: Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress for Glyndebourne, followed by Mozart’s The Magic Flute three years later. The success of these productions led to an invitation from the Metropolitan Opera to design two ‘triple bills’: Eric Satie’s Parade, Francis Poulenc’s Les mamelles de Tirésias and Maurice Ravel’s Les enfants et les sortilèges in 1980, followed by Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps, Le rossignol and Oedipus Rex the following year. In 1987, he designed the Los Angeles Music Center’s production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde: a lavish undertaking that featured brightly-coloured Vari-Lite beams typically used in stadium rock concerts. From this point onwards, his designs became grander and more ambitious: Hockney set up a giant stage model in his studio, complete with a miniature lighting rig, that allowed him to experiment in precise detail with colour and space. These efforts culminated in two major productions of 1992: Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot for the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and – coming full circle – Richard Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten for the Royal Opera House.
For Hockney, the aesthetics of theatre were closely linked to his broader ideas about art. From its inception, his practice had dealt with questions about space, vision and perception, as well as themes of reality and artifice. Though his naturalistic paintings of the early 1970s were seemingly far removed from the otherworldly fantasies of his theatre sets, they nonetheless furnished him with a deep understanding of staging. Expertly lit, the present work is built with a designer’s eye, relishing the formal dialogues between Webster and his various props: the scene, incidentally, echoes a 1964 photograph of van der Rohe himself seated in the same chair. Drawing inspiration from the work of Piero della Francesca, as well as the Cubists, Hockney’s paintings of this period asked probing questions about the translation between real and pictorial space, subtly manipulating perspective, lighting and other illusory devices. In doing so, the artist sought to arrive at a clearer picture of how we truly process the world around us: such knowledge would prove vital when it came to constructing alternative realities in his opera designs. Tellingly, Martin Friedman once described Hockney’s double portraits as ‘a new, if introspective, form of theatre’ (M. Friedman, ‘Painting into Theatre’, in Hockney Paints the Stage, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 1985, p. 32).
The work also demonstrates Hockney’s masterful early engagement with acrylic: a medium that dominated his practice during this period. ‘The great way to use acrylics is the very old fashioned method of glazing with washes’, he explains. ‘… The glaze dries in ten minutes and then you can put another on so it’s just adapting it’ (D. Hockney, quoted in M. Glazebrook, ‘David Hockney: an interview’, in David Hockney: Paintings, prints and drawings 1960-1970, exh. cat., Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1970, pp. 11-12). In the present work, Hockney makes skilful use of this technique, building up layers of tonal gradation that contribute to the work’s rich chiaroscuro effects. The folds of Webster’s suit are a triumph of textural manipulation, while fine strokes of colour pick out the strands of his hair and the metallic glow of the chair leg. Each of the flower heads is individually tinted, like faces in a crowd. Such complex sensory details were born of Hockney’s long observation process, which typically relied upon a mixture of photographs, drawings and live sittings – a trio of studies for the present work is held in the Arts Council Collection, London.
For all their optical rigour, however, Hockney’s paintings of the early 1970s were tinged with bittersweet overtones. The demise of his relationship with his lover Peter Schlesinger around the time of the present work – an event eloquently captured in Sur la Terrasse (1971) and Portrait of an Artist (Pool With Two Figures) (1972) – had a profound impact upon his outlook. In works such as Beach Umbrella (1971) and Rubber Ring Floating in a Swimming Pool (1971), he imbued static objects with a near-human sense of pathos, casting them as ciphers for his own loneliness. Bathed in long shadows, these isolated props assumed a mournful memento mori quality: reminders of life’s inevitable transience. This concept reached its height in the 1971 masterpiece Still Life on a Glass Table – one of Hockney’s most deeply autobiographical works, which Henry Geldzahler described as having ‘the emotional energy of a portrait’. The work is a close relative of the present: indeed, the right-hand side of its composition, Geldzahler went on to explain, ‘is the left half of Sir David Webster’s portrait’ (H. Geldzahler, Making It New: Essays, Interviews and Talks, New York 1994, p. 144).
If Hockney’s own reflective sobriety is palpable in the present work, the painting is made all the more poignant by the knowledge that Webster passed away later that year. Viewed in this context, its study of the human form is transformed into a quiet, dignified memorial. Perhaps the portrait lingered in Hockney’s mind when he came to paint his own ageing father in the 1976 work My Parents and Myself – the two men’s poses are strikingly similar. Bathed in warm, glowing light, however, the composition is awash with signs of life: from the gleaming chair that raises Webster upon an invisible pedestal, to the extraordinary flower head whose petals reach towards the sky. Seen in this light, the work takes on a deeper resonance: radiant with nostalgic, theatrical beauty, it is Hockney’s personal farewell to a man who lived his life in service of the arts.