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Happy Birthday, Mr Hockney

On 9 July, Britain’s best loved and most influential artist – and one of the College’s most esteemed alumni – David Hockney, celebrates his 80th birthday.

Hockney attended the RCA between 1959 and 1962. We spoke with him about his time at the College:

‘When I arrived at the College, I didn’t quite know what to do. There was compulsory drawing for a term, which was fine with me – I liked drawing. But then around the second term, they made drawing not compulsory and introduced General Studies, which were lectures on nuclear physics or something like that. It was said at the time that people were leaving art school and not being properly educated, I think that’s what started it. But for me, things like drawing, painting and learning other skills were the real serious activity.

‘In those years, the College was a marvellous place, with very lively, lively students. Most of us were living on scholarships. They (the tutors – Carel Weight, Ruskin Spear, Ceri Richards, Roger de Grey, Colin Hayes and Sandra Blow) left you alone... I was a confident, cheeky sort of lad but the staff always liked me. I didn't see them as antagonistic – in the end, they just ran a very lively school.

‘Most of us had had very traditional teaching methods up until that point, and when we got to the RCA we wanted to do more physical things and abstraction, which was getting big, coming from America. You could do exactly what you wanted. You could even smoke. I remember having to sandpaper off the nicotine stains on my fingers before going to see the registrar to borrow some money. They couldn't be seen to be lending to fellows that smoked.

'The Royal College of Art has changed a lot from what it used to be in my time. I used to be in a building on Exhibition Road, and on Cromwell Road. When they put the windows in, they didn't put them in the right place – they put them in the east, which of course doesn't work, because you get the sun in the morning. If you put windows in the north, you get light consistently throughout the day. I was glad to hear that when they built the new Painting building they'd put the windows in the right place.'

Notoriously, Hockney was nearly denied his diploma from the RCA, because he did not complete the required theoretical essay. He created the print Diploma (1961) in protest and when the decision was reversed he was awarded a gold medal, which he received at the Royal Albert Hall wearing a gold lamé jacket. Reflecting on what he might teach, if he were to return to the RCA, Hockney commented:

‘It’s an interesting time. There are so many things to question. I’m moving away from single viewpoints and linear perspectives. One thing we did recently was around the show at the Royal Academy. We let a TV crew go in but went back in April to shoot it ourselves with just three cameras and a tiny team – me as cameraman. We got far, far more depictions of the interior and close-ups. Why doesn’t the BBC use its cameras in such ways? The problems with depiction should be stated. Old media is fading. You can see it in that the old media is talking about the new media. I follow it all very carefully.’

Hockney is best known for his iconic paintings, such as A Bigger Splash (1967), his portraits of fellow artists and friends such as Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1970–1), and his recent landscapes created en plein air in his native Yorkshire. Hockney is a skilled draughtsman and printmaker, celebrated for his innovative photo collages, which he calls ‘joiners’, and for his inventive use of new technologies, including his iPad drawings and digital film works of recent years.

Earlier this year Hockney’s Tate Britain retrospective became the gallery’s most popular exhibition. Seen by nearly half a million visitors it was the most visited exhibition for any living artist ever held at any of Tate’s four galleries and is now touring to the Centre Pompidou in Paris, followed by the Metropolitan Museum in New York. This year Hockney’s birthday is being celebrated by the J. Paul Getty Museum with an exhibition Happy Birthday, Mr. Hockney, showcasing both his self-portraits and photographic works.

The RCA is very proud to claim David Hockney among its illustrious alumni, and wishes him many happy returns.


The videos are taken from a forthcoming series of 80 short films DH-80: David Hockney – 80 Short Films for his 80th Year produced, directed and edited by Bruno Wollheim. Unseen, amusing, interesting, quirky, provocative, personal, eccentric vignettes from the five years (2004–9) that Wollheim filmed with David Hockney  in Yorkshire, LA, London and Germany, the films will launched online in summer 2017, to celebrate David Hockney's 80th birthday. please check back for more details about the launch.