Fifty years on, Hockney shows there's life in portraits

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The Independent Online

They are the record of a life, 150 portraits of parents, lovers, friends, the muses and the models immortalised by David Hockney over the past half century.

The 69-year-old artist is being honoured at the National Portrait Gallery, in London, with the most comprehensive survey of his portraits ever mounted.

Lovers such as Peter Schlesinger, whom he met after moving to Los Angeles in 1964, and John Fitzherbert, his companion of the past 10 years, rub shoulders with stars of the worlds of art, music and literature, from the artists Andy Warhol and Man Ray to the poet W H Auden.

The show was not his idea, but Hockney said he was glad they had done it. "For me to look at 50 years of my own work is a privilege in a way," he said. "This is the only time it will be put together then they will all go off to other places."

And despite much academic discussion over whether portraiture was finished as a genre, the Yorkshire-born artist insisted its death was much exaggerated. "People will always be interested in portraits but someone like me thinks that we should still paint them [rather than rely on photographs] because actually if you paint them you get a longer exposure... It will never die."

The exhibition, which also marks the 150th anniversary of the gallery, includes new works from the past year as well as his earliest self-portrait, from 1954, which recently came to light in the hands of a former fellow art student in Bradford. "I had probably given it to someone as a piece of board. That's what we did in those days," he said. In the same way as board was re-used, self-portraiture offered "a cheap model", Hockney added.

Other works never seen before include a drawing of his friend Celia Birtwell, who was immortalised in the painting Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, which is also on display. Birtwell, the fashion designer who was married to Ossie Clark, another designer, said she was proud to have been painted by Hockney, whom she called "an amazing visionary".

David Hockney Portraits opens today and runs until 21 January at the National Portrait Gallery; admission £9/£6.