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"Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy”, 1968, ©David Hockney

In 1979 David Hockney talked in the “Observer” to Miriam Gross, then the newspaper’s deputy literary editor, about his difficult relationship with Britain’s modern art flagship. We republish his words here to mark his record-breaking current exhibition at Tate Britain.  



Art is not just a luxury or a self-contained activity. It has a profound influence on other aspects of our lives, both directly — as in the case of architecture and design — and indirectly, in the way we respond to the world around us.

It can have practical consequences too. Here is one small example: if only our motorbike manufacturers had gone to a few exhibitions in the early 1960s they might have got the idea of putting more chrome on the petrol-tanks, or painting the wheels red or yellow or blue. They would then have produced more popular designs and not been left behind by the Japanese — who seem to take art more seriously.

To collect the art of our era is as important, therefore, as keeping a record of any other serious human activity. And the most important of contemporary collections in this country is undoubtedly the one in the Tate Gallery.

The Tate has two functions — it is the major state-supported museum both for British and for foreign art of the past 100 years (though its British holdings also go back a good deal further in time). In the case of foreign art they must try to get the very best, in the case of modern British art they have an additional responsibility: since it’s a narrower area, they must be more inclusive, act as a museum of record and try to cover the ground more fully. That is their duty and their job. And it seems to me that it is a job which in recent years they have been doing rather badly.

Of course, they did not always manage things all that well in the past. I was shocked to find out, for instance, that in 1947 they were offered, for about £700, The Red Studio by Matisse — a stunning and beautiful painting, that was already 40 years old then — and they turned it down. And although £700 may have seemed quite a lot of money at the time, it was no more that you would have had to pay for an Alfred Munnings.

But what I chiefly want to talk about is the Tate’s policy with regard to buying contemporary British art since 1964, when Sir Norman Reid became director. And it is mainly the gaps which concern me. It seems to me that what they have been doing is trying to find works to fit in with their theories instead of looking at what is being done and fitting in with that.

To give just a few examples. In the past 15 years they have not purchased a single work by L.S. Lowry, not one by Patrick Procktor, not one by Euan Uglow, not one by Allen Jones, not one by David Oxtoby. And if I can use my own work as an example they have only two of my paintings, which do not give a fair idea of the range of my work over this period. As far as I know they were offered a painting called A Bigger Splash (which I did in California) for £800 in 1968, and they turned it down; later they could have bought another picture, a portrait of Christopher Isherwood, for £1,200, and they turned that down too. They now say they would like some pictures of mine from California; but they will have to buy these not from me or the dealers who supported me at the time, but on the open market at higher prices. I’m sure they would have to pay at least £20,000 or £30,000, if not more.

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