Hockney: A Rake's Progress, By Christopher Simon Sykes

A portrait of the artist as a partygoer
  • @FionaSturges

David Hockney is, we are often told, our most popular living artist. This always sounds like faint praise, as if to earn your place in the canon you're better off being dead.

Perhaps more costly to his standing is that he is frequently called a national treasure, conjuring up, as it does, a quietly benign figure left to gather dust on a mantelpiece.

Christopher Simon Sykes is quick to blow away the cobwebs in his biography, the first of two volumes, pointing to Hockney's trailblazing status. This is, we are reminded, a man who has operated in almost every medium, from film and photography to print and oil painting. He was at the epicentre of the Swinging Sixties, partying with Hollywood royalty in Los Angeles and bona fide royalty in London. Now, in his twilight years, Hockney has embraced the digital age, producing drawings on his iPad that will be among the images shown at a retrospective of his landscapes at the Royal Academy next year.

Sykes first met Hockney when visiting an exhibition at the Kasmin gallery as a schoolboy. They met again several decades later when a mutual friend brought Hockney round for tea. Now Sykes has been granted "exclusive and unprecedented access" to the artist's archives and notebooks, as well as interviews with the man himself.

This seems a weak boast given that it arrives hot on the heels of Martin Gayford's A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney, based on lengthy talks with the artist. But where Gayford's book finds Hockney reflecting on largely artistic preoccupations – trees, seasons, technology – Sykes's is an exhaustive and authoritative telling of the Hockney story, tracing his passage from doodling schoolboy to the glory years of the Sixties and coming to a breathless halt at the premiere of The Rake's Progress at Glyndebourne in the mid-Seventies, where master of ceremonies Peter Langan laid on champagne, lobster and LSD. In between there are amusing titbits, such as Vincent Price serving cocktails from a coffin-shaped cabinet, and Hockney drawing a grumpy W H Auden and famously wondering: "If his face looks like this, what must his balls look like?"

Sykes is nothing if not fastidious in his research; he appears to have talked to everyone who ever met Hockney, bar his dry cleaner. In the event, his most intriguing source is Hockney's mother's diary. Laura Hockney, who, along with husband Kenneth was cultured but cash-strapped, comes across as a woman of remarkable compassion and unflappability, reacting with nothing more than muted puzzlement when her son was maliciously outed by Private Eye.

Of course, given that this is an authorised biography, there's nothing in it to upset the received view of the artist as a charismatic, colourful and lovable success story. It's also easy to make a man sparkle when focusing on his youth. Whether Hockney is an enduring cultural force or has become a museum piece in need of a good dusting, will be for volume two to decide.