Illustrated companion

This is one of a group of large double portraits of his friends which constitute one of the high points in David Hockney's career. In a remarkable way it combines informality and immediacy in the presentation of the sitters and their surroundings, with the formality and grandeur of traditional portraiture. The composition is constructed on a grid of strong verticals, broken and activated only by the diagonal of the male sitter and the corresponding inward thrust of the coffee table. Its stability is further enhanced by the almost symmetrical placing of the figures on either side of the window, which is the source of light.

The picture is also painted in a way which, while appearing highly traditional, is nevertheless distinctively modern. This is evident in, for example, the treatment of the two figures and the cat as rather flat silhouettes, although the faces by contrast are more fully modelled. Similarly, the naturalistically painted lilies are set against the table and book, which are treated as featureless abstract rectangular forms. This tension between representation and abstraction is a central underlying theme of Hockney's art, which he has explored in a variety of ways throughout his career.

The sitters are Ossie Clark and Celia Birtwell, celebrated fashion and fabric designers, respectively, in the 'Swinging' London of the late sixties. They were married in 1969 with Hockney as best man. The setting is the living room of their home in the Notting Hill Gate area of London. Hockney deliberately chose to paint them against the light (contre-jour), presumably to heighten their presence as strong silhouettes. The picture was painted from drawings made from photographs and from drawings made from life. In his biography of Hockney, Peter Webb reports 'Ossie remembers the day Hockney came to take some photographs for the basic composition. He had only just got up and so had no shoes on. He slumped into a chair with a cigarette and Blanche, one of their two white cats, jumped onto his lap. Celia was standing on the other side of the window with her hand on her hip and Hockney said "That's perfect" '. He later changed the name of the cat to Percy (the name of the Clarke's other cat) because it sounded better. Webb also quotes Hockney as saying 'I think it works because you feel their presence, you feel the presence of two people in a weird relationship. Ossie is sitting down and Celia is standing up. Yet you know it should be the other way round'. Webb comments: 'The Clark's marriage had been unconventional from the start, and their portrait seems to show an awareness of the tensions that were to lead to divorce.'

The picture on the wall is one of Hockney's own etchings. Its title 'Meeting the Good People', might be seen as a sub-title to this portrait of Hockney's two friends, which he spent most of a year painting.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.253