Royal Academy Chronicle The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition: A Chronicle, 1769–2018 search Menu

1986 Bouncing Back

Explore the 1986 catalogue

The 1986 Summer Exhibition catalogue, as had long been the case, not only listed the works on display in the Exhibition, and the artists who had produced them, but it also listed the prices that were being asked for these works.1 Those who bought the catalogue that year, and who turned to page 36, which listed the first fifteen paintings on view in Gallery III, would, initially, have seen little to surprise them. The first work to be listed on the page was Lilies, by the Associate Academician Phillip Sutton; it cost £5,060 to purchase. To give another example from the first few entries, The Mirror, a work by the Academician Anthony Green, was priced at £8,625. These were substantial sums, yes, but they were what most knowledgeable exhibition-goers would have expected of major paintings by such well-established members of the Royal Academy. For visitors to the show, and readers of the catalogue, the shock would have come when their eyes moved further down the page, to the works listed as numbers 514 and 516 (Fig. 1) in the Exhibition. This is what they would have read:

514: An Image of Gregory, 1985 – lithograph
(edition of 75: £12,075 each) … David Hockney ARA        £12,075

516: Views of Hotel Well III – lithograph
(edition of 80: £10,925 each) … David Hockney ARA        £10,925

Ouch. People weren’t used to seeing such prices, or to calculating these kinds of numbers in their heads (75 x 12,075?) as they consulted their catalogues at the Academy’s Summer Exhibition. And they certainly weren’t used to seeing these kind of sums being charged for prints, which had long been appreciated as offering visitors to the show a relatively affordable kind of artistic commodity. Sharpening the sting, another of Hockney’s lithographs, on display in Gallery X, was listed as being sold in an edition of 98, again at £10,925 each.2

As always, the critics were quick to scent a good story, particularly as it concerned a genuine artistic celebrity. David Hockney, after a good deal of courtship by the Academy, had accepted its invitation to become an Associate Academician only the year beforehand. As everyone within the organisation would have known, he was quite a catch, and someone who could be expected to bring its Summer Exhibitions a greater artistic credibility and a significantly enhanced public appeal. But the critical response to this, his first showing of works as an ARA, was not quite what the Academicians would have anticipated. In a review of the 1986 show headlined “Hockney’s Summer Madness”, Edward Lucie-Smith began by declaring that: “the big news of this year’s Royal Academy summer show is undoubtedly David Hockney’s first appearance there as an Associate of the Royal Academy.” He then goes on to add that that artist “is rather meagrely represented by three recent lithographs, notable for their colossal asking prices.”3 Meanwhile, “Pendennis”, in the Observer, did the maths:

Amid all the £40, £50 and £100 price tags, the catalogue suddenly says “Lithograph, edition of 98: £10,925 each”. There are three Hockney collections, 98 at the price just quoted, 75 at £12,075 each, and 80 at £10,925 each. Pulling out my trusty calculator I found that Mr Hockney, anxious not to suffer for his art, is asking for £2,850,275.4

In a sarcastic post-script, he adds: “other people at the exhibition seemed very angry and were muttering ‘rip-off’, believed to be a term of artistic criticism.”5 Finally, John Russell Taylor in The Times, having noted “Hockney’s large new colour lithographs”, went on to add that: “anyone thinking to make a nice cheap purchase will get a nasty shock at the prices (£10,000 or more for one in an edition of 98).”6

The episode can usefully be understood as one in which two very different artistic economies—the more modest, even parochial economy of the Summer Exhibition, and the inflated economy of a global art market, in which such prices were commonplace—came into jarring conflict. But it may have been exacerbated by the fact that, at least according to a claim made in an authorised biography of the artist by Christopher Simon Sykes, it was not Hockney himself who had set these prices for the Academy Exhibition, but rather an assistant, David Graves.7 In the words of Sykes, “Hockney was furious” with what had happened, “claiming ignorance and laying the blame squarely at the feet of David Graves for setting the prices.”8 Whatever the case, it was obvious that the artist’s new relationship with the Academy had begun very badly. Typically, however, Hockney found an ingenious way to deflect the kinds of attacks to which he had been subjected by the critics, and to stave off the charges of artistic arrogance and commercial exploitation to which he had suddenly made himself vulnerable.

Over the winter of 1986–1987, Hockney agreed to support a “Bradford Bouncing Back” campaign being launched in his home town of Bradford, which was designed to promote the town’s image after a series of manufacturing losses and a tragic fire at the local Valley Parade football stadium.9 He did so through agreeing to produce an original print that could be given away with the local newspaper, the Bradford Telegraph & Argus. Picking up on the campaign’s slogan, A Bounce for Bradford showed a brightly coloured ball bouncing its way across a light-blue background (Fig. 2). The print was published as a supplement in a March 1987 issue of the newspaper, together with an illustrated article lauding the fact that it provided local readers with an original work of graphic art for nothing more than the Telegraph & Argus’s cover price: “It’s not every day that you can buy a David Hockney masterpiece for 18p.”10

In addition, Hockney asked that the newspaper, as well as running off the 100,000 copies of the image that it was going to use for its special supplement, print out 10,000 extra copies.11 These provided the basis for a new and very different artistic appeal to the Summer Exhibition audience on his part. Thus, on page 85 of the 1987 Summer Exhibition catalogue, we find the following:

1181, A Bounce for Bradford (from Bradford Telegraph & Argus supplement ‘Bradford Bouncing Back’, 1987) – web-offset litho newsprint (edition of 110,000: 18p each available from RA shop) … David Hockney ARA.12

What a difference from the year beforehand! Now, even the least affluent of the visitors to Burlington House could afford a “genuine” Hockney print; and not only that, but in doing so, they could see themselves affirming their support for a troubled northern town.

At least some critics suspended all cynicism about Hockney’s motives, and described the exercise in terms that were almost precisely the opposite of those with which he had been slurred the year beforehand: in the words of Waldemar Januszczak in The Guardian, “both picture and price-tag challenge the view that the artist’s job is to make exclusive knick-knacks for the living rooms of the well-to-do.”13 The transformation of attitudes is, in retrospect, an astonishing one, and one which testifies to the artist’s boldness and brilliance in rescuing and redefining his artistic image. In 1986, he had been cast as an arrogant rip-off merchant, selling “meagre” fine-art prints at extortionate rates; now, once again, Hockney was the people’s artist—the son of the North, and someone who was pretty much giving his works away. As had been true so often in the past, the Summer Exhibition had provided the means for a masterful display of artistic brand management.

  1. The Two Hundred and Eighteenth Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition 1986 (London, 1986). ↩︎

  2. The Two Hundred and Eighteenth Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition 1986.↩︎

  3. Edward Lucie-Smith, “Hockney’s Summer Madness”, The Illustrated London News, 26 July 1986.↩︎

  4. “Pendennis”, The Observer, 1 June 1986, quoted in Christopher Simon Sykes’s extremely useful and thorough biography, Hockney: The Biography, Volume 2: 1975–2012: A Pilgrim’s Progress (London: Century, 2014), 252.↩︎

  5. “Pendennis”, The Observer, quoted in Sykes, Hockney, 252.↩︎

  6. John Russell Taylor, “Summer Exhibition 1986, Royal Academy of Arts”, The Times, 31 May 1986.↩︎

  7. See Sykes, Hockney, 250–253.↩︎

  8. Sykes, Hockney, 252.↩︎

  9. For a good summary of this campaign, and Hockney’s contribution, see Sykes, Hockney, 251.↩︎

  10. Bradford Telegraph & Argus, 3 March 1987.↩︎

  11. See Michael Davie, “Painting by Large Numbers”, The Observer, 31 May 1987.↩︎

  12. The Two Hundred and Nineteenth Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition 1987 (London, 1987), 85.↩︎

  13. Waldemar Januszczak, “Summer of the Umpteenth Doll”, The Guardian, 6 June 1987; interestingly, Michael Davie, in The Observer, did note the fact that: “behind the scenes, I learned that the academicians have not been too sure what to make of Hockney’s submission.” Referring to the criticism that Hockney had received the previous year for the “high price” he had been asking for his lithographs, Davie goes on to report the Academician’s concerns: “Is this year’s work, some of the RAs have wondered, a riposte to last year’s criticism?”. Michael Davie, “Painting by Large Numbers”, The Observer, 31 May 1987.↩︎

Thematic categories: , , , , , ,


Explore the 1986 catalogue