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Going after Mr Hockney
10:00am Saturday 4th August 2012 in Features
Anthony Chappel-Ross’s photograph of the scene that inspired David Hockney's The Road To York Through Sledmere (1997)
His London exhibition was the hottest ticket in town, but what has been the ‘Hockney effect’ on East Yorkshire? MAXINE GORDON and ANTHONY CHAPPEL-ROSS head out on the Hockney trail…
DAVID HOCKNEY apparently painted his view from Garrowby Hill from memory – but as my car chugs up the steep incline behind a struggling lorry, I reckon the Yorkshire artist freeze-framed what he could see in his rear-view mirror.
It’s at the point where York thrusts itself up into the Wolds that we enter Hockney territory.
I half expect to see a plaque: “Yorkshire welcomes you to Hockney Country”, but there are no brown signs to indicate that here, in this forgotten corner of God’s favourite land, is where a master has been at work.
The Bradford-born artist was first famous in the 1960s for his paintings of Californian swimming pools. But his fame has peaked once more, now in his 75th year, with an acclaimed exhibition at the Royal Academy featuring scores of art works featuring the Yorkshire Wolds. The show then travelled to Spain and Germany.
Hockney began painting in East Yorkshire at the behest of his great friend Jonathan Silver, owner of Salts Mill, near Bradford.
Silver was dying of cancer and wanted Hockney to paint the Yorkshire landscape.
Many of the scenes that were to grace the 12 rooms of the Royal Academy earlier this year were discovered as Hockney drove daily from his home in Bridlington to West Yorkshire, often via Sledmere, to see Silver.
He would weave off the main routes, criss-crossing the tree-lined country lanes in the middle, stopping by the roadside and sketching what he saw. Hockney would be out in all weathers; in all seasons. Some of the most dramatic pieces capture one location at four points in the year. His Three Trees at Thixendale series is painted on four giant canvases, depicting winter, spring, summer and autumn in glorious succession.
And glorious is the right word; for whatever the weather or time of year, Hockney paints the Wolds as if through a Polaroid lens with the colour saturation switched up to the max. Vibrant violets, Aegean blues, chilli reds, dusky pinks and sharp lime greens are applied to ploughed fields and bare trees; hedges heavy with hawthorn and piles of chopped timber. It’s Yorkshire, but not as many of us know it.
And yet it is to this undiscovered part of the county that the art tourists have come, determined to see Hockney’s playground for themselves.
But how easy is it to follow in Hockney’s footsteps?
Tourist chiefs have brought out the obligatory mini guides, telling people where to eat, where to stay, and where, roughly, Hockney liked to paint. Keen to encourage visitors to explore the area, they stop short at giving the exact locations of the artist’s paintings.
This is why we find ourselves driving up Garrowby Hill and over to Thixendale in search of his “three trees”. As we turn off the A166 Bridlington road for Thixendale, the view across the patchwork fields is straight out of a Hockney painting.
I see three trees standing in stark silhouette on the horizon and I begin to wonder: could that be them? Moments later a pile of just-cut logs lie artfully by the side of the road. Photographer Anthony and I almost clap our hands in glee. Hockney would have been just as thrilled.
Few people know the local area like Robert Fuller, the wildlife artist with a studio and gallery in Thixendale. Hockney has even painted Fuller’s house in one of his Wolds’ landscapes; “Though not the attached gallery,” says Robert, smarting slightly.
Many visitors have come through the gallery doors this year with one question on their lips. “Where are the trees?”
Robert and his wife Victoria sympathise.
“There are five roads into Thixendale; you can’t just drive through and find the three trees,” says Robert.
He kindly offers to take us to the exact spot. We head off on the road out of Thixendale to Burndale, although Robert points out the trees are easier to spot coming in the opposite direction. “I always tell people if you get to Burdale, it’s one field behind you.”
And suddenly there they are. Three trees.
Or is it four or five? Deceptively they are not in a clump on their own; neither do they stand out dramatically like the ones I saw from the Garrowby Hill turn off. Dare I say it; they look, well, just like a group of trees. But Robert gets there first. “There’s nothing unusual about this place,” he says, almost with a shrug.
We follow him back, climbing the narrow road high above Thixendale, where he takes us to some other road-side pit-stops where Hockney set up his easel. “It was always by the road side so he didn’t have to walk very far,” says Robert.
Like Hockney, Robert knows this landscape, and he understands and shares the painter’s fascination.
He says: “When you go to the Dales, it is obviously beautiful. When you come to the Wolds, you have to search out the hidden beauty.”
This is the message being peddled by the local tourist industry. Jane Evison is a councillor on the East Riding of Yorkshire Council with responsibilities for economic development and tourism. She says the area is making the most of the Hockney opportunity.
Although there are no hard facts and figures yet, anecdotally, the reports are of an increased interest in the Wolds and the expectation of a good season.
A bumper-sized tourism brochure, Yorkshire Wolds & Beyond, has been published for summer, featuring a rough guide to the Hockney Trail as well as scores of other interesting things to do in the area including walking and cycling trails and local attractions such as Sledmere House, Burton Agnes Hall, The Walled Garden at Scampston and the RSPB reserve at Bempton Cliffs.
The clear message, says Coun Evison, is that there is more to the Wolds than Hockney.
“We believe Hockney is a wonderful attraction and we are delighted, but once people get here, they need something else.
We want them to see more of the area and we want them to come back,” she says.
Moreover, they want to press the point that the Wolds are a destination all year round; that there is more to a vacation in the area than a summer break at Brid.
“We want to expand our tourism calendar to far more months in the year,” says Coun Evison.
And who better to help with that than Hockney, who through his Yorkshire paintings captured the Wolds in all their wonder through every week of the year. From the hedgerows buckling under the heavy hawthorn blossom in mid-summer through to the bleak silhouette of bare trees on a valley ridge in winter, Hockney captured Yorkshire’s hidden corner like never before.
And put the Wolds rightly on the map
YOU can explore Hockney country by taking part in the Wolds Walking & Outdoors Festival next month. Now in its second year, the festival boasts plenty for all the family.
Robert Fuller is hosting several events, including: Saturday, September 14, 10am: Birds of Millington Pastures Sunday September 15: 1.30pm, Birds of Thixendale and 3pm Red Kites on the Wolds Monday September 15: 10am, Birdwatching at North Cave Wetlands Saturday September 22: 10am & 1.30pm, Migration Spectacular at Spurn Point Sunday September 23: 10am & 1.30pm Waders at Paull, near Hull There will also be some bushcraft courses and mini mammal safaris for children.