Mr and Mrs Clark with Percy by David Hockney, 1970-71
I chose this portrait because it was a bit more modern and I found the dynamics between the figures quite interesting. This painting seemed to have a lot to say. The posture and expressions of the sitters I find fascinating.
The picture features Hockney’s friends, Celia Birtwell the fabric designer and Ossie Clark the fashion designer. The couple had only been married a year when the painting was started and Hockney had been their best man. He had drawn the couple many times before and said that the decision to paint this large scale painting was because he thought “they would make a pretty picture” (1).
The couple are shown in their apartment in fashionable Notting Hill in London (so not in sunnier climes as I had wondered). The architecture does hint at this but I wasn’t sure as many cities such as Paris have such style. The room is chic and modern, hinting at luxury with the toe-covering thick pile rug. The central figures stand out with strong tonal contrast. Dashes of colour are included in the book, vase and lamp but otherwise the stylish surroundings are uncluttered and simple. They are very modishly dress as you would expect for designers.
Hockney worked from life and from photographs for this painting. He had great difficulty as a result of choosing to position the couple in front of the light source (contre jour)(2). This unusual choice for a portrait apparently caused Hockney problems with obtaining the correct tones. He even made a mock up of the scene in his studio, trying to copy the lighting effect. The result however, is worth the effort, with a wonderful still, cool atmosphere. The couple sat for him for many hours and Hockney admitted to reworking Ossie’s head twelve times before he was happy with it (2). In fact it’s possible to see that this area is more thickly painted.
Also unusual is the positioning of the couple in the portrait, unlike more traditional couple portraits, the figures are separated by the window and do not look at each other. Their poses are also unusual, the standard pose with the woman seated and the man standing above in a more powerful position is reversed.
Melanie Pace mentions in her analysis of the painting for Dulwich Picture Gallery, that Hockney wished to capture the tension between the couple (2). In fact the couple divorced in 1974 apparently as a result of Ossie’s fast living lifestyle but not before they had two children together. I think Hockney has succeeded in capturing the strain between the two marvellously. As with all my annotations, I’m never quite sure if I’m understanding the work correctly and often I get a completely different idea, but this time I recognised the feeling exactly. Initially I doubted my impression because the couple were newly married and Hockney had been a close friend. This, however, has put him in the perfect place to paint the couple. I wonder how different the composition would have been if he hadn’t known them. I imagine this is the reason why traditionally couple portraits are shown with the couple united and together because the artist often wont know the sitters and they themselves would choose this. Hockney appears to have chosen to do the painting and thus wasn’t under any pressure to paint them in a certain way. Interestingly the couple chose to be shown in these poses which makes the issue even more curious. One wonders if they were aware of the effect this would have on the composition or whether Hockney had a little bit to do with the positioning.
Both figures are shown looking out at the viewer which serves to include us into this group, drawing us in. Ossie’s sidelong look makes him look shifty and his laid back pose is reminiscent of a defiant teenager. His insolent “I don’t care” posture accentuates the divide between the two as Celia is shown in a much more sensible pose, a slight smile on her face, perhaps of resignation about Ossie’s childish ways. In fact by this time, Celia was already a mother, their first child born in 1969, and was actually pregnant at the time the work was painted (3). This perhaps explains Hockney’s choice to show her is this maternal hand on hip stance with what could be seen as a long-suffering expression. It seems from this painting that Hockney was aware of Ossie’s hedonistic lifestyle which appeared to be putting a strain on the couples relationship.
Hockney has painted much of the work in his typical flat style but some area are much more modelled and life-like including the faces and the vase of lilies (which was painted from life in the studio (2)). The other items included are painted more flatly. I noted in my annotation that these items may be of symbolic importance. Hockney has chosen a very plain surrounding for the couple which makes these objects stand out further. Two objects are placed on each side and thus seem to link to each figure. Celia’s vase of lilies and book are perhaps the easiest to explain. Lilies have been used in art for hundreds of years as symbols of purity, femininity and associated with the Virgin Mary while the book represents knowledge and wisdom, so he is further establishing her innocence in the conflict and maternal side.
Hockney’s double portraits have been compared to Annunciations (6) featuring a seated and standing figure but the characters are the reverse of what you would predict and don’t really fit with Ossie’s reputation as you would imagine Celia would be the seated virginal one. The seated “virgin” can also indicate permanence and the standing “angel Gabriel” refers to a visitor.
Ossie’s objects are bit more difficult to decipher. A telephone and lamp are office objects and so perhaps could mean his success in business. The lamp is particularly ornate however which may be a reflection on his flamboyant nature. The telephone next to him serves to distance Ossie even further from the scene. He is only a hand stretch away from being somewhere else. Perhaps he insisted that the phone was there, so he could be ready to make his escape to another place.
The cat on Ossie’s knee is an important part of the composition. It’s inclusion in the title further emphasises it’s significance. I puzzled over the meaning of the cat for a while. Cats are often seen with quite a sinister light in art, however this cat is pure white (which adds to the stylishness of the couple) so I think this effect is not intended. Cats are viewed as being very aloof and independent which is accentuated by its position. It sits like a statue on Ossie’s knee, in quite an awkward looking way. It’s back is to the viewer so is completely uninterested in us or the people around it. It seems to use Ossie as a seat in order to get a better view out of the window. He is not showing any affection to the animal and it doesn’t seem particularly comfortable. The position of the cat was not fabricated in any way however, as Blackwoods film proves, with Hockney shown working from a photo of the exact scene in the painting.
It had occurred to me that the cat was not Ossie’s cat, rather belonged to Celia and this is why he shows no affection. He has not removed it from his lap however – perhaps Hockney asked him to keep it there for the photo. I read somewhere that the cat sits erect over Ossie’s crotch so perhaps it is also a sexual symbol of Ossie’s philandering ways. Cat are often seen as representing promiscuity.
The only other item in the portrait is the picture on the wall. This picture is Hockney’s own etching from his series A Rake’s Progress from 1961-3. These were based on William Hogarth’s series of paintings in the 18th century. They depicted the decline of a Tom Rakewell who squanders his money on rich living, prostitution and gambling, finally being imprisoned and then detained as a maniac in Bedlam (4). It seems evident that the inclusion of this etching was a further clue to indicate Ossie’s “rakish” behaviour. One wonders with all of these connotations if Hockney was truly a friend to Ossie, he doesn’t seem to have respected him very much. Indeed in the film made by Michael Blackwood, Hockney is shown painting the work in 1970 and he speaks of Celia with great affection and seem to have held her in high regard. Hockney’s allusion to the Rake’s Progress was sadly prophetic as Ossie ended up in a one-bedroom flat living in poverty and was murdered aged 54 by his lover high on drugs.
If we compare this portrait of a married couple to others in the Western Canon such as Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage or Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews, they generally show the man and his property such as Mr Andrew’s land and Arnofini’s ornamented interior. We can also include the female present as part of his property, in the case of Arnolfini, the unborn child and dog as well. Hockney appears to have depicted the Clark’s in the reverse situation, with Celia in the confident “man’s” position while Ossie lounges looking unconcerned and Celia’s cat sits “owning” Ossie. This further demonstrates Hockney’s intention to depict Celia as the dominant one in the relationship and Ossie perhaps as the irresponsible child.
I’m so glad I chose this painting, further analysis has revealed layer upon layer of narrative. I am left wondering about the relationship between the three. I’ve even seen written that Hockney and Ossie were perhaps lovers at one stage (Ossie was bisexual) but I’m not sure how accurate this was. This raises even more questions but Hockney doesn’t appear to have been jealous of the couples relationship or Celia would surely have been shown in a very different light. Whatever the back story was, it has intrigued me and I will look out for books about Hockney’s life to see if I can find out more.
1. Blackwood M. (1970) David Hockney’s Diaries, Michael Blackwood Productions
2. Masterpiece a Month, Pace M, Dulwich Picture Gallery, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8vGMYoeDcbU, 17/12/14
3. A life in print: Susannah Frankel meets Celia Birtwell, Frankel S, 07 February 2008, http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/fashion/features/a-life-in-print-susannah-frankel-meet-celia-birtwell-779037.html, 17/12/14
4. Gombrich E. H. (2006) The Story of Art, 16th Edition. London: Phaidon Press Ltd.
5. http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/hockney-mr-and-mrs-clark-and-percy-t01269/text-summary, 17/12/14
6. Shanes, E. (2009) Pop Art. 1st Edition, Parkstone Press International, New York
This text was updated following tutor comments received July 2015
Word Count – 1797