Nick Hackworth

David Hockney Midsummer: East Yorkshire 2004, Somerset House

Essays & Reviews Evening Standard

Without so much as a blush, the press release for this small display of works by Hockney describes it as a “complement” to the 18th-century watercolours in the Hermitage Rooms upstairs. Insult might be closer to the mark.

Packed together in a grid on one wall, the 36 watercolours explore the land- and cityscapes of Hockney’s native Yorkshire — fields he laboured in, woods he gambolled through and the rooftops of Bridlington, where his mother lived. These are scenes of melancholy and nostalgia. But such is Hockney’s handling that although the sentiment might be there, when its articulation is this bad, who cares?

Hockney’s abortive experiments with watercolour began in mid-2002 and lasted until early this year. A quote on a nearby wall about Chinese painting indicates that he hoped to capture something of that genre’s fluidity and vision. Contrary to such stated aims, the worst pieces are lumpen and heavy.

Badly drawn forms, such as haystacks, sit on fields of unmodulated colour. Meanwhile, the delicacies of the medium, the chance to explore tonal variations by blending pigments wet-on-wet and the pleasure of eking out meaningful shapes from gestural marks, lie unexplored.

For comparison, look at the 18th - century works. The precision of Girtin or Cozens and the wonderful versatility of Turner, who conjured atmosphere from the loosest of brushstrokes, amount to an embarrassment of riches. All this exhibition proves, as if we needed reminding, is that the alchemical touch of celebrity, transmuting straw into gold, remains undiminished.