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2007 The Hockney Wall

Simply put: this was David Hockney’s year—and he “stole the show”.

Bigger Trees Near Warter, or to give it its full title Bigger Trees Near Warter Or/Ou Peinture Sur Le Motif Pour Le Nouvel Age Post-Photographique, was the undisputed highlight of the 2007 Summer Exhibition (Fig. 1).

Painted in oil on fifty separate canvases which were hung together in a tight grid, the overall painting measured 460 x 1220 cms, making it the largest work ever shown in the Summer Exhibition.

David had called me early in 2007 with a request. He had been working in Yorkshire, engaging with the landscape there and painting directly from the motif. He had already executed a number of works painted en plein air, starting with watercolours at first, and then moving onto oil paintings, his ambition in scale increasing rapidly. His request was whether I could secure for him the end wall in Gallery III, which was generally considered to be the best wall in the grandest of the Main Gallery spaces. He needed to know with certainty that it would be allocated to him as he intended to fill it, in its entirety. 

Explore the 2007 catalogue

Given the inevitable jockeying for position in the Summer Exhibition among the membership, and the annual anxiety that all experienced about being hung in a favourable position, it was a big ask, and David knew it. There were three coordinators working on the Exhibition that year: Bill Woodrow, Paul Huxley, and Ian Ritchie. A meeting was convened with them to determine the possibility of dedicating this space to Hockney’s ambitious project. Aside from the concern regarding politics, there was recognition that it would be of enormous interest to the press and public alike, and so it was agreed—mostly with enthusiasm, although fellow painter Huxley registered rather less support that the others.

And so it began. The painting took six weeks to complete with Hockney working outside in cold and, at times, very inhospitable weather. The huge scale and complexity of working across a large number of canvases presented considerable technical challenges. Eschewing the use of the camera as an artistic aide, Hockney relied solely on preliminary drawings executed outside to devise a sketched grid of the entire composition onto a massive scale. Working across as many as four canvases at a time, Hockney brought a greater number with him each day to work on in rotation. His team hired and adapted a transport van, which enabled the wet canvases to be stacked separately and transported flat. At the end of each day, Hockney would bring the canvases back to the small top floor studio at his Bridlington home. There he would nuance them and plan the painting schedule for the next day. His team would photograph the canvases that had been worked on, and create a computer grid to map an overview of the process. 

Throughout his career, Hockney has always set challenges for himself. This was perhaps one of the most taxing to date. In a very short space of time, working at a prodigious pace, he created a painting that was totally modern but which also captured the spontaneity and direct observation of the nineteenth-century French painters; one thinks of the Impressionists and the Barbizon School. 

This was not the first time that Hockney had employed a grid of smaller canvases to make up a larger work. He had done the same for his Grand Canyon paintings in the 1990s. However, in those works each canvas provided a slightly differing perspective. 

Hockney rang most evenings to give me an update on progress. Exhausted but exhilarated by what he was accomplishing, it was fascinating to receive a commentary on how the work was unfolding. The frustration on completion was that he did not have sufficient space to show the work in its entirety. A warehouse was hired for a weekend to install the work so he could see it before it went to the Royal Academy; we all trooped up to Bridlington to see it. Even in the environment of a small industrial estate in a building with strip lighting, the work was astonishing in its vivid depiction of a corner of Yorkshire.

Knowing the nature of the Summer Exhibition—Hockney had first exhibited there in the 1950s as a student—he had determined the size so that it would not be possible to hang anything else on the same wall. It took up the entire space on what we now refer to as “the Hockney wall”.

During the installation, David and I had many conversations about his return to Yorkshire and his engagement with the landscape—about the scale of paintings and how size alters the viewer’s relationship with the subject. This led to an experiment at the close of the Exhibition. Hockney requested that everything but his painting be deinstalled and that we hang two replicas of the painting on the side walls of the gallery. The effect was totally immersive.

Our conversations across the months regarding his landscape paintings, and the experimentation of filling Gallery III with replicas of his work, suggested to me that there was much more to come. That Hockney has not completed his interrogation of this subject. I approached the Exhibitions Committee with a suggestion that we offer Hockney a Main Gallery exhibition focusing on the Yorkshire landscape. When they agreed, I went to see David to talk through it with him. He was surprised, but within twelve hours, he had agreed. From the end of 2007 to the beginning of 2012, he continued to work at a formidable rate to explore the possibilities of depicting the landscape. We could not have predicted what was to come—the iPad works, the films, some his greatest oil paintings, and charcoal drawings.

The exhibition revealed the extent to which Hockney’s landscape work was informed by an intense and highly sophisticated curiosity about the visual world and a delight in the manifold possibilities of image-making. The public loved it: over 600,000 came in to see it.

It all started with the Summer Exhibition.

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Explore the 2007 catalogue