An exhibition of one artist’s lifetime of work opens appropriately with two self-portraits of him as a young man and a recent one as a rather older man.

This is how people experience their first moments in the reopening of the David Hockney exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, which famously opened in 2020 just days before the UK went into pandemic lockdown.

Then, the gallery itself closed for three years of rebuilding works, so the exhibition has been effectively in storage, waiting to be put back out again. Fortunately, though, this is no mere copy/paste job of the old, as the artist has been busy in recent years, so the exhibition has expanded to accept his most recent works.

The main display though opens with a large painting that you might not realise is unfinished and was thought to have been destroyed, but was found in storage in San Francisco and brought to London for this show.

It’s an early version of My Parents, which the Tate owns, but this one has his mother floating in the air as the chair wasn’t finished, his dad, who moved around a lot, was later given a book to read, and the reflection of the artist was replaced with a reflection of painting.

The rest of the exhibition is very much a reflection on the rest of his career, which is much more often as a drawer than a painter.

It’s likely that many people who have seen Hockney in his more painterly mode will be surprised at how much of the exhibition is of drawings, as his early fame came from his skills as a portrait artist working swiftly with pen and ink.

The skill needed to draw with uncorrectable ink is a testament to how highly regarded he is as a master draughtsman, and that skill then unpins the foundations of much of his later works.

The exhibition can be loosely broken into five zones, each a look back at a particular person and period of his work, from the many years of painting his muse, Celia, through the loving eye of his then boyfriend, to the bursts of colour when he swapped pen for paint.

From almost monochrome rooms, you walk into a burst of colour, with the bit that’s been bolted on, the recent portraits made in the past few years at his Normandy home.

These days, people queue up to be painted by David, and the NPG was lucky enough to have celebrity glitter scattered when a certain Harry Styles sat for a portrait. The early release of images from that did generate a certain level of mirth as arguably, it’s a rather stiff painting when compared to the very relaxed sitter in the chair.

However, portraiture has rarely been about accuracy, from grand old paintings designed to make important people look imposing and grand to more modern abstract, a portrait is what the artist sees and is not meant to be a photograph.

For all the pre-show publicity, the Harry Styles portrait is just one of many at the end of the exhibition, filling a room with colour created in the darkest of recent times.

The exhibition, David Hockney: Drawing from Life is at the National Portrait Gallery until 21st January 2024.

Adult: £21 | Concession: £18.90 | Unemployed/Pension/Disabled: £10.50 | Children (<12): Free

There are also £5 tickets for visitors aged 25 and under on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Tickets can be bought from here.


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