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Painter David Hockney (RA) creates bold, bright and experimental works that ensure his status as a national treasure and beloved name in British art. Hailing from Bradford, Yorkshire, Hockney has explored a lifelong interest in different ‘ways of looking’ through his art, experimenting with a vast array of processes, media and styles in his long and illustrious career.
David Hockney was born in Bradford, Yorkshire in 1937, the fourth of five children. Hockney once said that whilst his family were not very wealthy, they did not have the ‘failure of imagination’ suffered by many others around them. As such, his parents paid for him to have private tuition in painting and between 1953 and 1957 Hockney attended Bradford College of Art.
Eager to pursue an artistic career, in 1959 Hockney moved to London to enrol at the Royal College of Art (RCA), where some of his former tutors had once been students. Whilst in London, Hockney met his contemporary R.B. Kitaj, and began to experiment with a more physical and abstract brand of art influenced by American Pop Art and culture.
Hockney’s first works were influenced by American Abstract Expressionism, and painters such as Jackson Pollock. In 1960, Hockney began to make his Love paintings, exhibiting them for two years in a row at the Young Contemporaries exhibition at London’s RBA Galleries.
The painting We Two Boys Together Clinging, which takes its inspiration from the American writer Walt Whitman’s poem of the same name, is perhaps the most famous of these works. A gestural, expressionistic depiction of two figures in an embrace, its use of graffiti-like script made coded references to Hockney’s sexuality at a time when homosexuality was still illegal in Britain. These paintings birthed a style of their own and became emblematic of a British Pop Art scene and of the ‘swinging’, bohemian London of the ‘60s.
Whilst still at the RCA, Hockney was awarded the Guinness Award For Etching and in 1963 achieved breakthrough success with his etching series, A Rake’s Progress. A pastiche of 18th-century English painter William Hogarth’s moralistic series of the same name, these works are supplemented by memories of Hockney’s first trip to New York, where he met American Pop artist Andy Warhol.
In 1970, London’s Whitechapel Gallery held a major retrospective of Hockney’s work. Over the next forty years, Hockney would exhibit his work internationally, at locations such as the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Portrait Gallery in London. The largest ever exhibition of Hockney’s work, comprising 397 works of art in more than 18,000 square feet of gallery space, was held at the de Young Museum, San Francisco in 2013 and 2014.
David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash (1967) is perhaps the artist’s most iconic piece. Depicting a California swimming pool, a recurring subject of Hockney’s work, it was based on a photograph the artist once found in a book.
Another of Hockney’s most famous works, Portrait Of An Artist (Pool With Two Figures) (1972), also features his trademark swimming pool. Recalling the photograph John St Clair Swimming (1972), its creation was documented by filmmaker Jack Hazan, who had been filming Hockney for two years as part of the documentary film project entitled A Bigger Splash (1973).
Other internationally famous works by Hockney include Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1971), which depicts Celia Birtwell—one of Hockney’s muses— and her then husband, Ossie Clark.
Throughout his life, Hockney has drawn from the works of canonical artists, such as High Renaissance painter Michelangelo, as well as from the work of more contemporary figures like Balthus or Giorgio Morandi.
As the Influences series shows, in the early portion of his career, Hockney was chiefly inspired by literature. Walt Whitman, for example, is a recurring point of reference in the artist’s early works, particularly the stand-out piece Myself And My Heroes (1961). Other names from the literary world, such as Anglo-American poet W.H. Auden, also informed Hockney’s early output during the ‘60s and ‘70s, as shown by the 1970 etching Auden.
No one has had a greater impact on Hockney’s œuvre, however, more than the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso. Hockney once crafted two prints as tribute to his indebtedness to Picasso: The Student (1973) and Artist And Model (1973).
Hockney’s long career has seen the artist use a huge variety of artistic processes and media, ranging all the way from drawing, painting, printmaking and photography, to the fax machine and new digital technologies, such as the iPad.
What unites Hockney’s œuvre is an openness to different ways of looking and seeing the world. This almost philosophical approach to making art is present in his many designs for the stage, many of which feature in the Hockney And The Stage series. These works question our perception of space, often disrupting the boundaries between audience, music, stage and players by way of self-referential motifs, such as the theatre drop curtain. As his Photo Collages series communicates, Hockney is no great fan of simple, unifocal art; rather, he opts for a dynamic way of working which attempts both to mimic the perception and movement of the eye. As he once said: ‘If your eyes are still, you’re dead’.
In 1964, Hockney made the bold move from a grey, overpriced London to California, where he set up his home and artist’s studio. Liking this migration to that of Van Gogh, who in 1888 travelled from Amsterdam to Arles, Southern France in order to profit from a better quality of light and a more readily available sun, it was a move that would directly influence not only his work, but the company he kept.
Spending more than thirty years in the United States, the Yorkshireman was catapulted into a new, sexually liberated space rich with a vibrant and graphic consumer culture that fascinated him. Punctuating his life with many trips abroad, Hockney formed close friendships with the likes of Lucian Freud, Andy Warhol, and Christopher Isherwood, amongst many others. In the 1990s, Hockney returned more frequently to Yorkshire to visit his ageing mother, before making a more permanent return to the UK in 1997. As of 2018, Hockney lives and works in Normandy, Northern France.
In 2006, Hockney’s iconic painting The Splash sold for £2.9 million to an anonymous buyer. In advance of a major retrospective at London’s Tate Gallery in February 2017, the price of Hockney’s artworks soared. In November 2016, his painting The Gate (2000) sold for just under $7 million. This trend continued and on the 15th of November 2018, Hockney’s 1972 work Portrait Of An Artist (Pool With Two Figures) sold at Christie’s auction house in New York City for $90 million (£70 million), becoming the most expensive artwork by a living artist ever sold at auction. Hockney held this record until the 15th of May 2019, when Jeff Koons’s Rabbit (1986) fetched $91 million at auction in New York. In February of 2020, The Splash was re-sold to an anonymous buyer for the princely sum of £23.1 million.
Portrait Of The Artist (Pool With Two Figures) © David Hockney 1972
Portrait Of An Artist (Pool With Two Figures) became not only the most expensive work by Hockney at auction when it sold at Christie’s in New York on 15 November 2018, but also the most expensive work by any living artist at the time. The painting – which combines Hockney’s iconic swimming pool and double portrait themes – sold for almost US$30 million more than the previous record set by Jeff Koons’s Balloon Dog (Orange) from 2013. The painting is among Hockney’s most famous artworks, appearing in his 2017 landmark retrospective at Tate Britain and even satirised in the Netflix cartoon Bojack Horseman.
Henry Geldzahler And Christopher Scott © David Hockney 1969
Between 1968-75, Hockney made a series of seven double portraits – one of them being the Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Henry Geldzahler and his then-boyfriend, painter Christopher Scott. When Henry Geldzahler And Christopher Scott came up for auction at Christie’s in London on 6 March 2019, it was one of just two double portraits remaining in private hands. The painting had previously been offered at Sotheby’s in New York in November 1992, where it realised US$1.1 million – 27 years later, its value in dollars was close to US$50 million.
Hockney had met Geldzahler at Andy Warhol’s ‘Factory’ in 1963. “Henry and I got on along instantly,” Hockney said later, recalling that they bonded over a love of opera, painting, Cuban cigars and that they shared the same birthday – 9 July.
Nichols Canyon © David Hockney 1980
Nichols Canyon captures the Hollywood Hills neighbourhood where Hockney lived in 1980. The artist drove through this landscape every day on his way to his studio on Santa Monica Boulevard. “The moment you live up here, you get a different view of Los Angeles. First of all these wiggly lines seem to enter your life, and they entered the paintings,” Hockney recalled. The painting sold for nearly US$41.1 million at Phillips in New York on 7 December 2020.
The Splash © David Hockney 1966