The Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy (1863-1933) came from a merchant family from Constantinople. He was born and lived most of his life in Alexandria, Egypt, where he worked as a clerk until his retirement in 1922. During his lifetime only two small collections of his poems were published, although others did appear in literary magazines and were translated into French, English, German and Italian. The first anthology of his works was published in 1935, two years after his death.
Hockney first came across Cavafy through the writings of Lawrence Durrell. He found an English edition of the poems in the public library in Bradford in 1960. The book was not on the shelves and only available upon request - Hockney never returned the book, as he later admitted.
Cavafy was homosexual and many of his poems frankly and unashamedly celebrate 'the beauty of deviate attractions', as he put it in his poem In an old book . As early as 1961, when homosexual acts were still illegal in the U.K., Hockney had dealt with themes of gay love and desire. Yet in these early works, such as Fires of Furious Desire or Alka Seltzer (see lots 6 and 7), the homosexual nature of the scenes was somewhat disguised and alleviated by the deliberately crude grafitti style and the irreverence of the images. For the Fourteen Poems Hockney chose a very different, representational style: his sparse, accurate lines are perfectly matched to the clarity and simplicity of Cavafy's tone. Both Cavafy and Hockney in their respective medium maintained a sobriety and directness which removed the stigma and gave these scenes of gay love dignity and romance. Gently erotic rather than overtly sexual, the poems and the etchings are however very explicit in what they are about: physical desire and intimacy between young men.
The etchings were made in 1966 and came out in 1967, just as parliament passed the Sexual Offences Act, which finally de-criminalised homosexuality in England and Wales. The Cavafy etchings are Hockney's gay manifesto, published at a time when homosexuality was still a highly controversial subject. Much later the artist decribed the etchings as "good propaganda", yet they are intimate and personal rather than declamatory: 'I wasn't speaking for anybody else, but I would certainly defend my way of living.' (Hockney in: A History of the World in a Hundred Objects, BBC, 2011.)