Jonathan Ruffer grant: Researching David Hockney

Published 3 April 2019

Jill Iredale, a curator at Cartwright Hall, received a grant to research David Hockney in Los Angeles. She talks about the experience and about meeting the man himself.

My Jonathan Ruffer grant funded a Hockney-related trip to Los Angeles. While I was there I read original material at the Getty, spoke to staff at the Los Angeles County Art Museum, visited the Hockney archive and met the artist and his assistants in his studio. I came home feeling I had learnt more than if I had read a million books.

David Hockney was born in Bradford and used to visit Cartwright Hall as a child and as an art student. The collections in Bradford and Leeds were the only places he got to see ‘proper art’ and helped encourage his interest. Hockney credits Bradford School of Art as the place where he learnt how to look and draw. Cartwright Hall now houses a large number of works from this period.

In order to be able to display these works and do justice to telling the story of Hockney’s life and work we plan to open a dedicated Hockney Gallery in time for his 80th birthday in July 2017. For this we needed to secure the artist’s blessing and to discuss the option to borrow some works and archive material.

At the Getty library I read correspondence between the artist and his gallery from the 1960s and 1970s. It felt strangely intrusive reading the (once) private letters of someone who I would actually be meeting in a couple of days. His sense of humour came through clearly and I realised this should definitely be reflected in our gallery display.

At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), I saw the Hockneys on display and met with two curators – one a senior curator with a long standing friendship with Hockney, and the other a British curator who had been in LA for a few years.

Until this point the Hockney Archive had been a somewhat mysterious place to me. I have had email correspondence with them, but always quite brief. They are understandably protective of Hockney and seek to control the use of images of his work to maintain quality standards. Talking to the staff made me understand how they work. It was also very important to raise their awareness of Cartwright Hall and our plans.

I was beside myself with excitement by the time I was escorted up the path into Hockney’s studio. I was keenly aware that a lot rested on the impression I gave him and his team and on my convincing him of what we wanted to do. It was like representing Bradford at the Olympics.

After presenting our idea and answering questions I had an opportunity to ask lots of my own questions, especially about his memories of Cartwright Hall. I think for his assistants I was a bit of a curiosity – it turns out Hollywood and Bradford are not in the least bit similar, and I don’t think working-class northern women are their usual sort of guest. All Hockney’s staff were lovely and I came away with huge feeling of what a nice person Hockney himself was – he asked pertinent questions and listened to everything I proposed. Fortunately he agreed to our plan for a Hockney Gallery. Before I knew it I was sat on my hotel bed in a daze. It had truly been an incredible week.

The benefits of the grant have been too many to list. It has opened the dialogue about a Hockney Gallery and established a closer relationship between Cartwright Hall and Bradford’s internationally renowned artist. In the long-term it will hopefully contribute to enriching Bradford’s collections; establishing Cartwright Hall as a Hockney destination will help to increase visitor figures and improve the prospect of its survival for future generations so they, like Hockney, can come and be inspired.

Jonathan Ruffer curatorial grants provide funding for travel and other practical costs to help curators undertake research projects. Applications are always open.

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