Curator Helen Stalker of the Whitworth Art Gallery discusses the pervading influence of A Rake’s Progress, Thursday 13 June, 19.00
The Contemporary Art Society recently gifted David Hockney’s A Rake’s Progress (1961-3) to the Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester, as a bequest from collector Dr. Ronald Lande in memory of his life partner Walter Urech. A Rake’s Progress is a semi-autobiographical story about Hockney, the ‘rake’, and the ups and downs of his visit to New York in the early 1960s. The themes and numbering system are based on William Hogarth’s 1735 suite of prints of the same title. Hogarth’s 18th century prints tell of the decline and fall of Tom Rakewell, a spendthrift son and heir of a rich, but miserly, merchant, who abandons his Oxford education, returns to London, and squanders his money on luxurious living, prostitution and gambling. As a consequence he is imprisoned in the Fleet Prison and ultimately in Bedlam.
In Hockney’s narrative, the rake arrives not in London but New York, making money, dying his hair blonde, finding himself impoverished, and ultimately residing in his own version of Bedlam: a place populated by mindless masses or the ‘other people’, where unique identity has disappeared. Hockney draws upon Hogarth’s themes of lost individuality, commercialisation, nationalism, politics and sex, and modernises these to tell a story that is wholly relevant to both the British and American experience of the 1960s. An important part of Hockney’s work is the portrayal of homosexuality at a time when it was still illegal in Britain. In Hockney’s words, “what one must remember about some of these pictures is that they were partly propaganda of something I felt hadn’t been propagandised, especially among students, as a subject: homosexuality. I felt it should be done. Nobody else would use it as a subject, but because it was part of me it was a subject I could treat humorously.” (David Hockney, Stangos, 1976)
A Rake’s Progress is an example of Hockney’s earliest work. Having only begun to explore printmaking in 1961 on discovering the graphics department at the Royal College of Art, Hockney won £100 prize money for an early etching, Three Kings and a Queen. He used the money to fund a trip to New York, which was to prove one of the most formative trips of his life as an artist and provided inspiration for the set of 16 prints on display. On arrival in New York, Hockney was overawed by the city’s power and energy, but quickly encountered its darker side of prostitution, alcoholism, and homelessness. On his return to London, with small drawings on scraps of paper, Hockney began to create A Rake’s Progress as a way of visually describing his experiences in New York. He created 16 etchings in total, which were first printed in a portfolio by Editions Alecto in 1965. The vivacity of the finished prints is astonishing and owes much to the artist drawing directly onto the plates with little preparatory work. The prints on display here are from an edition of 50. Other UK collections with the print series include Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Lakeland Arts Trust, Tate and British Council.
The edition of A Rake’s Progress on display was purchased by Dr. Ronald Lande from Lewis M. Kaplan in 1973 and came to the Contemporary Art Society in 2010 to be gifted to a museum. Along with A Rake’s Progress, Dr. Lande had a collection which included works by Roger Hilton, Francis Bacon, John Piper, Patrick Procktor, Barbara Hepworth, Tom Merrifield and seven oil paintings by Keith Vaughan. Reflecting on how he came to collect, Lande said, “For 35 years I was a General Practitioner in Pimlico, London. Through mutual friends, since undergraduate days I had become interested in modern art and artists and in 1960 I went with my partner to Keith Vaughan’s studio in Belsize Park and bought my first two Keith Vaughan oils (Walter liked one and I liked the other so we bought both!).” Lande’s collection of
seven paintings by Vaughan were presented to Abbot Hall Gallery (Lakeland Arts Trust), National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, Towner (Eastbourne), York Art Gallery and Brighton Museum & Art Gallery through the Contemporary Art Society in 2012. Lande decided to donate the works by Vaughan and Hockney’s A Rake’s Progress because his collection had brought him “much pleasure over the years” which he hoped “might be shared by others.”