David Hockney was said to be in a “state of shock” last night following the unexplained death of his close friend and studio assistant.
Dominic Elliot, 23, was taken ill in the early hours of Sunday morning at the artist’s home in Bridlington, East Yorkshire.
It is understood that the popular rugby player, who cut a distinctive figure in the seaside town with his ginger curly hair, was driven 20 miles to Scarborough General hospital after he began vomiting by the 75-year-old painter’s long-term partner.
Mr Elliot later died in hospital and a post mortem examination is due to be carried out tomorrow (Tuesday) although toxicology results could take several weeks. Among the lines of inquiry being followed by police are suggestions that Mr Elliot may have been drinking prior to his death or that he had an underlying health complaint.
Mr Hockney’s publicist Erica Bolton said Mr Elliot had been a “very important person” to the artist and had worked with him for more than two years.
“He is incredibly upset about it. Like everybody else he is in a state of shock,” she said.
The younger man, who was born and grew up in the town, had assisted the painter with lighting and other technical issues as he worked in the open air painting the wide open spaces and vast skies of the Yorkshire Wolds countryside.
Britain’s greatest living artist was inspired by the landscape during visits to see his mother from his home in the United States. It provided the subject for some of his most acclaimed later work including the monumental Bigger Trees Near Warter which the artist recently donated to the Tate. He “painted” Mr Elliot in 2008 as part of a series of portraits completed with an iPad app.
Friends said he saw his role as assistant to Mr Hockney as a “dream job” and had travelled extensively with the Pop Art pioneer who returned to the Yorkshire coast full time following the death of his mother. He had helped him prepare for last year’s blockbuster show at the Royal Academy, which was entitled A Bigger Picture, and the pair saw each other most days.
Last week friends said he had met Sir Paul McCartney and was a trusted member of the artist’s inner circle who had his own key to Mr Hockney’s detached house overlooking the North Sea where yesterday the blinds were drawn and a number of people came and went.
A police car was parked outside the house for five hours on Sunday and Mr Hockney is expected to be spoken to by police about the circumstances leading up to his assistant’s death. It is not known whether he was at home at the time his friend was taken ill.
The former York University business student had his own home nearby. He returned to Bridlington after his studies and was part of a prominent and respected family. His father, a local doctor died of a heart attack, suddenly in 2001 aged in his 40s. His family were too upset to comment on his death.
A keen sportsmen, Mr Elliot played rugby and hockey. At Bridlington Rugby Club where he was described as a “cracking lad” and the “life and soul of the party”, chairman Gordon Morrice paid tribute to Mr Elliot.
"Dominic was a valued member of our club, a good player with great potential. With his size and ability he could easily have established himself as a first team regular. He was a popular lad and had so many friends at the club, he said."
It is believed he was driven to the hospital by Mr Hockney’s partner of 23-years John Fitzherbert, a former chef. The couple also have a home in London.
Locals said the Bradford-born artist who spent most of his career in California, was regularly seen walking up and down the promenade to buy cigarettes or dining at a local café with members of his team.
Mr Elliot’s close family friend Leanne Nelson, described him as a “special person” and said everyone that knew him was devastated by his death. “He was one of those people that would do anything for you. He was the most genuine person, so many people loved him and it has affected so many people,” she said.
A spokeswoman for Humberside Police said there had been no signs of violence: "The circumstances of the man's death are not clear and officers are currently undertaking inquiries to establish events leading to his death,” she said.