Tate Etc

Sitting for Hockney

Wayne Sleep and George Lawson recall the experience of sitting for David Hockney between 1972-5

David Hockney began a double portrait of the dancer and his then partner in 1972 , abandoning the painting a year later. He resumed working on it briefly in 1975, but it remained unfinished. Tate Etc. met with Sleep and Lawson at the launch of Hockney’s Double Portraits, a display at Tate Britain that brings together this and two other of his paintings from the Tate collection.

Wayne Sleep I first met David in 1967 when he was smuggled in to draw the Royal Ballet in rehearsal. He said he’d love to draw me. We just clicked and soon became the best of mates. David introduced George and I. David and I went to Gloucester Place, where David’s gallerist John Kasmin had a big flat in a Regency house. George was there too, he already knew Kasmin. When I first saw him I thought: ‘Who’s that old man in the corner?’ He was only 26 back then, but he’s never looked any different. The portrait went through so many stages. I’ve got so many pictures of George standing in front of me, being moved to the side, being turned into a cut-out, and David moving me. To be honest, I got a bit fed up with the whole process. There was no end in sight, but I suppose if you’re creating something, you never say it’s finished while you’re working on it.

George Lawson The painting is set in my little, tiny flat in Wigmore Place. According to Wayne, I’m playing an A-flat on the clavichord I’m sitting beside – I wanted to call the painting A Flat, you see – but now I can see perfectly well that it’s a G. I would play this note when I was sitting for the portrait. I can hear it now. That note captures an atmosphere – there’s a quietude, a stillness about it. I think the painting is about stillness, the sound of that note, concentrating on a sound and listening. I suppose that sense of stillness also comes from the great big blank wall that takes up most of the frame. David struggled to get the light right, and he said it was one of the hardest things he’d ever had to do – to paint just a blank, sort of distempered wall. He had at one point put copies of the New Temple Shakespeare in as a reference to the painterly convention whereby one shows the profession of the sitter in the objects surrounding them; these were a nod to my profession as a bookseller. There is a rather odd blue blob in the bottom right-hand corner of the canvas now that was originally part of a twovolume box-set of the Oxford English Dictionary, which was in the painting at one stage along with the books. The blue bit of line there is what remains of it. He’s left it in – it’s quite strange, but it feels deliberate.

Wayne Sleep It’s very strange to see the portrait again after 40 years. The work feels like a period piece about the 1970s. The acrylic definitely used to be white on my trousers and my shoes. George’s hair looks awful. He should have combed it.