Obituary: Laura Hockney

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The Independent Culture
"UP UNTIL yesterday," David Hockney confided to me on the morning after his mother's death, "I always knew exactly where my mother was. If I wanted to have a chat with her I could phone her and she would drop whatever she was doing to talk to me."

The extraordinarily close bond between them, documented in numerous portraits, was only part of the story of an extremely tight-knit family whose affection and mutual support for each other's individuality helps explain how they all came to accomplish so much and to lead lives of such unexpected adventure considering the working-class northern environment into which they were born.

Two of the artist's brothers emigrated to Australia, one (John) becoming a graphic artist and exhibition designer and the other (Philip) building up an extremely successful business based on the design, manufacture and export of large trucks; the third brother, Paul, set up his own accountancy business (through which he has always served as David's accountant) and was once Lord Mayor of Bradford, and the sister, Margaret, worked as a nurse in far-flung parts of the world before returning to Yorkshire where she set up her own clinic of natural medicine in Bridlington.

If nothing in the lives of the Hockney children followed predictable paths, this was partly down to the example of their eccentric father, who seems to have taken little or no notice of what other people would say about his dandified way of dressing, his political views or his strange custom of writing personal letters to Stalin and other world leaders. Little did it matter that David was not alone among his siblings in taking up smoking, even though his father had campaigned so vociferously against it: the need to act on personal conviction, and then to seek to persuade others of his point of view through a campaigning spirit, made them all their father's children.

Laura was an altogether quieter person than her husband, devoutly religious in her Methodism and devoted all her life to her large family, but she was very much his equal when it came to holding firm views which she did not, however, feel necessary to impose on others. She was, for example, a strict vegetarian, but she was quite prepared to prepare meat-based meals for the rest of her family. This laissez-faire attitude and generosity of spirit was certainly one she bequeathed to her children.

In recent years John and David, who perhaps through their geographical separation from Yorkshire have become particularly entranced with piecing together and recording their family history, have been sifting through the evidence of family life when they were all still living at home in Bradford. To their surprise, they discovered that their mother had kept scrupulous ledger books during the whole of her married life in which she noted every last penny she had ever spent from the family budget on food, clothing and other items. These books, which one hopes will one day enter into a public archive, provide in themselves an astonishingly detailed slice of social history of the period.

Although Hockney has lived only sporadically in England since first settling in Los Angeles in early 1964, on every return trip he has made a point of visiting Yorkshire to see his mother. Often the occasion has been marked by the production of a new portrait drawing, painting or photocollage. Taken together, this series of portraits of one of the artist's most frequent and patient sitters provides clear evidence not only of his artistic development and versatility but also of the humanity and affection that are such striking qualities of his art.

His mother, to a greater degree perhaps than any of his other subjects, always proved herself a willing conspirator in the making of a portrait, tirelessly submitting to his requests to pose and always responding positively to the result without any trace of vanity.

The six-year gap between the beautifully restrained pen-and-ink drawing of Laura made in 1972 and a reed pen drawing produced on the day of her husband's funeral in 1978 demonstrates Hockney's responsiveness to the sitter's moods and changing situation. In the earlier of the two she sits, engulfed in a high-backed armchair, with her arms folded and lips tightly shut; her demeanour suggests fortitude, single-mindedness and resilience. In the later drawing, the more emotive quality of the broken line together with her distracted gaze make her appear altogether more vulnerable, as is only natural given the thoughts of solitude and a new phase of life that must have been occupying her as she sat for her son.

The open acknowledgement of mortality in many of the later portraits, such as the November 1982 photocollage of her sitting among the ruins of Bolton Abbey, is as touching for what it reveals of her son's sensitive response - and his anxiety about losing her - as of her own unsentimental acceptance of the process of getting old. Three years before she passed away she was painted by Hockney asleep, as if already on her deathbed, her arthritic hands bent and twisted in pain. Although these portraits are suffused with melancholy and a sense of physical suffering, they are marked also by the great tenderness and admiration of a devoted son towards his equally loving mother.

Hockney returned to Bridlington from the United States on hearing that his mother had taken a turn for the worse. To distract and comfort himself, but also to reassert the attachment he felt as strongly as ever, he was making drawings of her during her last few days. He was with her when she died.

Marco Livingstone

Laura Hockney: born Bradford, Yorkshire 10 December 1900; married 1929 Kenneth Hockney (died 1978; four sons, one daughter); died Bridlington, Yorkshire 11 May 1999.