This beautifully rendered portrait of Celia Birtwell is typical of the fine and tender portraits with which Hockney has celebrated his close friendship with the designer over the years. It encapsulates not only the technical mastery of subtle colour and form that David Hockney has become so renowned and admired for, but also captures a moment within the life of the artist, permitting a glimpse of his interaction to those closest to him. Celia first met Hockney in Los Angeles in 1964 and is most famously represented in Hockney's large double portrait Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, 1970-1 (Tate Collection, London). With her husband Ossie Clark she was at the top of the fashion industry in London during the 'Swinging Sixties'. Clark created clothes using Birtwell's textile designs, and sold them from the shop Quorum on Chelsea's King's Road. In the present work, Hockney depicts Celia with touching candour, creating an atmosphere of ease and immediacy. Delicately tracing the line of Celia’s aquiline profile, Hockney completes the form of her body with an incredible economy of means, complementing the delicacy of the drawn line with the intense saturation of colour.
In 1973, after almost a decade spent in the Californian sun, Hockney returned to his native Britain, only to find that most of his friends were out of town. He made the decision to escape to Paris, “I’m looking forward to it, I think, more than my first trip to California. The relief of getting out of London and being able to work all day long will ease my life so much” (David Hockney quoted in a letter to Henry Geldzahler, 23 April 1973, Henry Geldzahler Papers, Beinecke Library, Yale University, New Haven CT). Encouraged by the fact that the Berlin publisher Propyläen Verlag had, for some time, been encouraging Hockney to produce a print for a portfolio called Homage to Picasso, and in spite of the fact that it was not intended to be published posthumously, the death of the Spanish master was perhaps the catalyst that encouraged Hockney to finally leave for France. He was to spend the best part of the next two years in Paris in an apartment in the sixth arrondissement. 3 Cour de Rohan was a romantic place, steeped in artistic provenance – the French painter Balthus had once had a studio in the same building.
Hockney was at a crossroads in his life, having left California and split from Peter Schlesinger, Paris was his escape. Writing to his friend, Henry Geldzahler Hockney declared; “Usually when I get into that state I have to do something, so I just sit and draw in some way or other… I’ll make some drawings of my friends; I’ll make them slowly, accurately, have them sit down and pose for hours” (David Hockney quoted in: David Hockney, That’s the way I see it, London, 1993, p. 17). Following this mission statement, one of the first friends to sit for Hockney was Celia, who came to Paris on a number of occasions in the November of 1973. As Celia recalled: “The whole point of going was to be painted by him…That’s when he drew me in all those pretty clothes. If I was there for a week he would do several drawings. They were done in pencil, and each took about four or five hours to draw. The best drawings were done in those three months” (Celia Birtwell quoted in: Christopher Simon Sykes, Hockney: The Biography, London 2011, p. 297). Beautifully composed, Celia with Bow Tie gives credence to this notion. Imbued with a sensual warmth and femininity that transmits the relationship between artist and model, as Celia noted to the art historian Paul Melia, “there was something going on between us which I think he portrayed through those drawings. He said to me that this was his way of expressing how he felt about me” (Celia Birtwell in conversation with Paul Melia, ‘Essays in Naturalism’, Paul Melia in: Exh. Cat., London, Royal Academy of Arts, David Hockney: A Drawing Retrospective, 1995, p. 144).
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