When David Hockney exhibited his 12-metre-wide landscape “Bigger Trees Near Warter” at the Royal Academy’s 2007 Summer Exhibition, he gave the world a glimpse of a tiny corner of East Yorkshire, albeit on a monumental scale. Now, almost five years later, the Royal Academy is gearing up for an exhibition that will reveal far more of the Wolds, the rural area that has been Hockney’s focus since he resettled there from Los Angeles in 2004.
The local tourist board, Welcome to Yorkshire, is understandably excited. Staff say they hope the new work could become as iconic as Hockney’s LA swimming pool paintings and that January’s exhibition will “put the area on the map globally”.
Keen to trace Hockney’s footsteps before the art crowd descends, I set off for a weekend in the Wolds, an area perhaps better known for its farms and fish and chip shops than for being muse to Britain’s most popular living artist. It quickly becomes apparent that for the moment at least, the Wolds remain delightfully off the tourist map.
An unspoilt agricultural region running south of the North York Moors and east of the Vale of York, this picturesque area is characterised by rolling chalk hills, dry valleys and red-brick villages. The Wolds have lost out over the years to Yorkshire’s Dales and Moors, both of which are honeypots for tourists and walkers. But, in some ways, this is one of the Wolds’ great strengths: it might not be as wild but it is also nowhere near as visited. Despite the many footpath signs, during my visit there was no GoreTex in sight.
The locals I met had yet to be caught up in the tourist board’s excitement about imminent Hockney-mania. “Oh yeah, he lives round here somewhere doesn’t he?” a taxi driver said; “That artist?” said the girl at the fish and chip shop in Bridlington. “He lives somewhere by the sea front, I think. Never seen him around.”
Although he used to return from LA to Yorkshire every year to spend Christmas with his mother at her home in the seaside town of Bridlington, Hockney only truly rediscovered the joys of the landscape when he returned in the late 1990s to spend time visiting a good friend who was dying. After the clean lines of California, with its dazzling light and shadow, Hockney was struck on his drives through the Wolds by the drama of the seasons, the glorious colour gradations and daily changes in light and foliage.
The fact that the Wolds hasn’t yet earned the same cachet as, say, Constable’s Suffolk means, for now, that you can explore the sites where Hockney painted undisturbed. That said, they aren’t exactly easy to find. Without a tip-off from two of the artist’s friends who live locally, I wouldn’t have found the spot where he painted “Bigger Trees Near Warter” – let alone some of the more obscure rural scenes, partly thanks to the creeping November mist obscuring the hills and large swathes of road.
But there is another reason why these spots aren’t instantly recognisable: Hockney is no slave to nature. While “Bigger Trees” is just about identifiable because of the road and the red-brick house, the actual painting makes the wooded area seem much broader and more panoramic. This deliberate distortion is the result of Hockney’s concern with capturing the actual way we see, made up of multiple viewpoints and composite images, as opposed to the restrictive single viewpoint of a camera.
Next was Woldgate Woods, an area not far from Bridlington that Hockney has painted again and again over the past few years. We drove along the long road that cuts through the middle, past the halfway tree stump that Hockney calls “The Totem”, and which I recognised from his various paintings, even though in reality it is mossy brown, rather than vivid violet.
Flanked by slim, nearly leafless trees, we proceeded slowly through the woods in an attempt to emulate one of Hockney’s recent experiments: a series of slow films of Woldgate taken with nine cameras arranged in a grid on the front of his Jeep. This innovation, something Hockney has spoken excitedly about, is perhaps his most probing enquiry yet into the way we see, and an important aspect of the Royal Academy show.
While Woldgate Woods is easy to find with an Ordnance Survey map, it would take a determined visitor to pinpoint the exact site of “The Tunnel”, Hockney’s name for the muddy lane that he has painted in all four seasons, from heavy foliage in summer to deep snow in winter. It was a privilege to see it at almost exactly the same time of year that he painted his autumn view.
Even if you are not on an art-inspired pilgrimage to these specific spots, a drive through the Wolds is quite something in itself. Once the mist lifted and the sun came out, the soft chalk hills were revealed, studded with grazing sheep and the occasional smoking chimney poking out of a valley below. Given how sparsely populated the area is, and how refreshingly un-chi-chi, it was a bit of a bonus to discover so many great places to eat – and just how sophisticated East Yorkshire fare can be.
During my weekend I had three remarkably good meals: the first was at the Star in Sancton, a busy restaurant and pub full of smartly dressed locals, where I wolfed down a gourmet take on Yorkshire pudding, a meaty halibut steak with a cheeky sole goujon on the side, and a delicious trio of desserts (there are a lot of trios in East Yorkshire). I had high hopes the next day for the Pipe and Glass, a Michelin-starred pub and restaurant in the village of South Dalton, which also has two smart double rooms – a good choice if you plan to stay a night or two. There I ate the best vegetarian main course I’ve ever sampled: a golden wellington of wild mushrooms and Lincolnshire Poacher cheese, with chestnuts and parsnips. This was followed by a trio of apple desserts (crumble, ice and sponge).
Slightly fancier, and boasting a Bib Gourmand, was White’s, a smart restaurant in the lovely town of Beverley. Here, 27-year-old chef-owner John Robinson is doing wildly creative things with local ingredients, especially seafood: wild bass with coriander and pearl barley broth with artichoke was a suitable precursor to a (particularly good) trio of tiramisu.
A weekend following in Hockney’s footsteps wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Bridlington, a seaside town that time forgot – in a good way. Maybe it was the deep mist obscuring all the chain shops from view but a trip to “Brid”, as it is known, is probably the closest you can get to time travel without a time machine.
The dank seafront was surprisingly alive with families snacking on polystyrene pots of whelks and mussels from old-fashioned vendors, and fat seagulls ducking and diving in and out of the tea-coloured sea. The arcades were lit up expectantly but largely empty and the fairground rides, inevitably perhaps on a day like this, were shut.
At the award-winning Fish and Chips at 149, the girl who had served us and answered our persistent questions about Hockney’s whereabouts asked us in return where we came from. When I replied, she exclaimed “London! I’d far rather have a weekend in London than Bridlington.” As we contentedly ate our wonderfully fresh haddock while sheltering from the sea mist at the bus stop outside, we wondered what on earth she meant. Hockney, for one, surely wouldn’t hear a word of it.
For the Star at Sancton, see www.thestaratsancton.co.uk
The Pipe and Glass (www.pipeandglass.co.uk) has double rooms from £160
White’s (www.whitesrestaurant.co.uk) has doubles from £85
David Hockney: A bigger picture runs January 21 to April 9 at the Royal Academy (www.royalacademy.org.uk)