Great Works: Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1970-71)

David Hockney, Tate Collection, London
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The Independent Culture

Imagine two ways of setting a scene. Think first of the stage directions of a play, describing a room, its furnishings and possessions. This isn't done for its own sake. These things are clues. They tell us about the characters who occupy the room, their personalities, tastes, status, aspirations.

Take Trevor Griffiths' The Party, written in 1973, set in 1968. The house belongs to a lefty BBC producer. The portrait is very precise. "The room is mainly white walls and black leather. The furniture is expensive, tasteful and tentative: Chesterfield, two big chairs, stools, rugs, huge floor cushions, white carpets, extensive Bang & Olufsen hi-fi, early colour TV (like a Wurlitzer), in. VTR and monitor; mirror, paintings, prints, decorative plants and fronds, shelves of hardbacks, two shelves of LPs. There are a dozen or so slung or standing spots to light the room."

And the author adds, so we make no mistake: "The impression is of purpose narrowly triumphing over comfort; of rich ease scored by persisting puritan principle." The room's contents, in other words, identify the protagonist's essential anxiety, torn as he is between his working-class beginnings and his bourgeois achievements. The directions put the character mercilessly in his place.

But now think of a photo in a lifestyle magazine. It could a fashion shot. It could be a straight advertisement. The scene is a catalogue. Every item of clothing and furniture – implicitly or explicitly – has its caption, giving the designer's name and a shop and a price; rug, by x, from y, at z pounds. Here the accoutrements, and the life they're part of, are presented frankly for our admiration and envy.

In the early 1970s, there was a series of adverts for the carpet-makers Sanderson. They recruited contemporary celebrities, exemplars of fashionableness, to lend their name to the product. The image would show a stylishly furnished room, with celeb and carpet both discreetly present. And the slogan would go (for instance): "Very Peter Hall. Very Sanderson." A whole lifestyle was conjured up.

But take a third scene from that great age of social mobility: David Hockney's Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy. What's the angle here? An exposing study of character and position? A wide-eyed lifestyle spectacle?

Notting Hill, circa 1970. A modish marriage. Two figures of 1960s London: she is Celia Birtwell, fabric designer, he is Ossie Clark, fashion designer. It's a couple portrait that harks back to traditional models, like Van Eyck's Arnolfini Marriage, or Gainsborough's Mr and Mrs Andrews. But there's a slight twist: here it's the gentleman who's seated, indeed totally laid back. And the two subjects are set apart, a full-length open casement dividing them. They're a modern couple, with independent careers and lives, perhaps straying too. The cat Percy sits erect on Mr Clark's crotch.

The scene invites a contemporary eye to look around and check the signs. For a start, the room is bare and uncluttered. This 19th-century terraced house, once heavily decorated, has been made over according to 60s standards, minimal but informal. Note the plastic phone, set straight down on the uncarpeted floor – a revolution in living.

The objects on view, the tubular chair, the hard-edged coffee table, the curious lamp, the vase, could all be given a label. There's a hint of sensual luxury, where his bare toes dig into the thick-piled white rug. The colour scheme is plain and cool, but the primaries sing out. A dash of red in her dress, blue in his thick-ribbed jumper – and is that The Yellow Pages?

The picture itself seems like a smart design-statement, until you look closer and see that the way it's painted is alive with questions. At every point, Hockney asks: what kind of mark should be used to depict this kind of thing? His answers keep changing.

Mrs Clark's curls are a homage to Botticelli and Mr Clark has a hard, clear Renaissance face. His hands and feet are almost lost in blocks of highlight. His cigarette is just a white oblong. Her dress becomes a field of smooth black. The rug is a neat, busy pattern of straw brushstrokes. The lilies are like origami. The reflections on the chair's chrome tubing do what they like.

Not exactly critique. Not exactly glory. But the picture goes in and out of detail, swings from solid realism to flat abstraction as it stares with a quizzical amazement at this strange new world, that has such things and people in it.

About the artist

David Hockney (born 1937) is the most versatile, popular, public-spirited painter of his generation. He emerged as a British pop artist, and – though he moved to America – became the first British artist celebrity. 'Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy' is one of the best-loved modern pictures. His life-drawings are classics. He has played with new media, while defending painting, and never refused controversy – an out gay, opponent of smoking bans, self-made art historian with a revisionist account of western art. He is the complete artist.