Bigger Trees Near Warter is David Hockney’s largest work to date. It measures more than four and a half by twelve metres. The painting is made up of fifty panels joined together to form a whole. Its subject returns Hockney to his native Yorkshire with a view of a landscape near Warter, west of Bridlington, just before the arrival of spring when the trees are coming into leaf. In the shallow foreground space a copse of tall trees and some early daffodils stand on slightly raised ground. An imposing sycamore is the composition’s central focus. Another, denser copse, painted in pinkish tones, is visible in the background. A road to the extreme left and two buildings to the right of the composition offer signs of human habitation. The painting’s extensive upper zone is dominated by the intricate but stark pattern created by the trees’ overlapping branches, which are clearly delineated against the winter sky.
Due to its massive scale and technical complexity the painting took Hockney six weeks to complete. Following on from preliminary drawings undertaken out of doors, the artist produced a sketched grid of the entire composition to guide the process. Working in stages, Hockney sought directness and spontaneity by painting en plein air (‘in the open air’), a method that evokes the practice of innovative, nineteenth-century French landscape painters such as the artists of the Barbizon School and the Impressionists, but inevitably limited the number of canvases he could work on at any one time. As they were worked on the individual panels were photographed and the photographs made into a computer mosaic, to allow the artist to chart progress on the composition as a whole as he only had space to display six to ten canvases together in his small studio in Bridlington. The canvases were variously reworked, transported back and forth from the studio to the site for subtle modifications that would enhance and strengthen the complete composition.
Hockney produced Bigger Trees Near Warter for the Summer Exhibition of the Royal Academy, London, in 2007, where it occupied the end wall of Gallery III. Following the close of the exhibition, once the rest of the works had been removed, this painting remained in place. Two digital photographic renderings of the work on exactly the same scale as the original were then hung on the two walls flanking it. Presented simultaneously on three walls, the vista seemed to engulf the viewer, creating the effect of a cloister.
The painting’s alternative title indicates that Hockney saw the conjunction of a method of painting out of doors and in front of the subject (called in French ‘sur le motif’) with the techniques of (digital) photography as central to his project to produce a landscape painting in oils on a very large scale. The experimental combination of traditional and state-of-the-art methods has characterised much of Hockney’s practice over the last twenty-five years. Yet his engagement with the formal and emotive qualities of the landscape itself is also a striking feature of Bigger Trees Near Warter.
Paintings inspired by the natural environment have formed a significant part of Hockney’s output for some time. In the course of the 1980s, he drew on the scenic terrain near his home in California in works such as Mulholland Drive: The Road to the Studio 1980 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), a large canvas measuring over 2 metres by 6 metres, and slightly later works including, The Road to Malibu 1988 and The Sea at Malibu 1988 (both reproduced in Hockney, 1993, figs.179 and 219, pp.186–7 and p.192). The artist used boldly coloured and geometric forms to accentuate the angularity of the land- and seascape: the curves and sharp edges of mountains and the waves of the ocean. That Bigger Trees Near Warter is composed of panels joined to make the complete work, evokes too the fragmented forms of Hockney’s photographic collages of the 1980s that often featured landscapes, as, for example, Merced River, Yosemite Valley 1982 (reproduced http://www.hockneypictures.com/photos/photos_collages_02.php
, accessed 7 October 2009). In 1998, Hockney painted A Bigger Grand Canyon (National Gallery of Australia), which, as a vast work measuring some 2 metres by 7.4 metres and made up of sixty individual panels, anticipates in scale and format Bigger Trees Near Warter.
Having painted in California in the late 1990s landscapes inspired by Yorkshire, in the early years of the twenty-first century Hockney thus came to shift his attention more emphatically to the scenery of his home region through direct engagement with it. He has continued to visit Yorkshire on a regular basis throughout his career, and now lives there part time, drawing inspiration for all his later landscapes on the countryside within a thirty mile radius of Bridlington. These paintings are more naturalistic than those of the 1980s inspired by the panoramas of California, though retain touches of their vivid colouring. In them, Hockney focuses particularly on trees. In the Woldgate Woods series of paintings, produced in 2006, for example, Hockney charted seasonal changes in a specific area of woodland in nine works each made up of six canvases. ‘[Trees are] like faces,’ he has explained, ‘every one is different. Nature doesn’t repeat itself ... You have to observe carefully; there is a randomness.’ (Quoted in Higgins, p.12.)
Hockney gifted Bigger Trees Near Warter, and the two digital reproductions of the work, to Tate following his seventieth birthday.
David Hockney, That’s the Way I See It, ed. Nikos Stangos, London 1993.
Charlotte Higgins, ‘Hockney's Big Gift to the Tate: A 40ft Landscape of Yorkshire’s Winter Trees’, The Guardian
Judith Bumpus, ‘Painting as an Extreme Sport’, The Art Newspaper, no.205, September 2009, p.42.