by Simon Martin, Director of Pallant House Gallery
David Hockney, Kaisarion with All His Beauty, 1961, Etching and aquatint on paper, Pallant House Gallery (Wilson Loan, 2006)
Although perhaps best known for his portraits and iconic images of sun-drenched Californian swimming pools, David Hockney (b.1937) is also one of the most accomplished printmakers of post-war Britain. While still a student at the Royal College of Art (1959-61) he received the prestigious Guinness Award for Etching. It was not only the innovation of his prints that made him stand out, but also the bold emotional honesty with which he drew on his personal life to inform his work. Hockney even etched his own Diploma at the end of his studies, having been threatened with not getting a real one for failing to comply with the requirements of the General Studies Department. With his Yorkshire accent, bleached blond hair, geek-chic glasses and frank homosexuality (even before it was legalised in Britain in 1967), he was a remarkable figure in the burgeoning Sixties Pop Art scene.
Hockney initially turned to graphic work as a student in 1961 because he could not afford painting materials. However, it coincided with an important moment for printmaking at the Royal College when the artist Julian Trevelyan as Professor of Printmaking was encouraging his students to push the boundaries of the etching process. 'Kaisarion with All His Beauty' relates to Hockney's use of handwritten, graffiti-like text in his paintings of the 1960s, and a seemingly naïve, sketchy figurative drawing style. Whilst still living with his parents in Bradford, Hockney had discovered a volume of poetry by the Modern Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy (1863-1933) in the local library. Like Walt Whitman, Cavafy was a literary hero for Hockney because of the homoerotic nature of his writings. This print is inspired by Cavafy's poems 'Kaisarion' and 'Alexandrian Kings' which describes the son of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra being presented to the crowds at a military parade: Kaisarion was standing a little forward/ Dressed in pink tinted silk/ On his dress a garland of hyacinths/ His belt a double row of sapphires and amethysts/ His shoes were tied with white ribbons/ Embroidered with rose coloured pearls/ Kaisarion all grace and beauty.
The print depicts Kaisarion standing on a cloaked figure, possibly the artist, and to one side a stylised Egyptian portrait of Hockney's mother as Cleopatra, with the Royal College insignia as a crown. The poetry of Cavafy offered Hockney much inspiration and he later made a series of memorable etchings entitled 'Fourteen Illustrations for Poems from CP Cavafy' (1966).