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The Hockneys by John Hockney, review: what it's really like to be brother to a celebrity genius 

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The Hockney children in the war
The Hockney children in the war

David Hockney’s brother has  written a charming account  of their postwar childhood,  discovers Lucy Davies

This is a story of sticky jam tarts, catching tadpoles in jars, torchlit conversations under the bedclothes, gossipy queues at the butcher’s and hikes among the hedgerows under swallow-strewn skies. 

If I tell you that its hero used Sunday night bathtime for a weekly farting tournament with his younger brother, and that, as a teenager, he pushed a toy pram around postwar Yorkshire wearing spats and a bowler hat, you may struggle to guess that he is now considered a yardstick of modern painting, with a bevy of fledgling artists trailing feverishly in his wake. 

I’m talking about David Hockney, RA – until recently the holder of the auction record for a living artist – whose little brother, John, has published an account of their childhood years in Bradford, before David departed for London and the Royal College of Art in 1959, and thence to California.

The book isn’t the first portrait of this ever-popular artist as a young man, nor is it the most thorough (for that, Christopher Sykes’s celebrity-laden, authorised two-volume biography is your best bet). But it is the most charming.

As its title, The Hockneys, suggests, the story it tells is that of a family – seven intimately, forcibly intertwined lives and their fluctuating dynamics, as one by one each child departs. Paul, who died last year, was the eldest; Margaret, now 84, came middle, then Philip, 86. David, 82, and John, 81, were the youngest, and for 14 years they shared a bedroom in the attic of their three-storey house. 

It was, writes John, “sparsely furnished. A multicoloured floral linoleum covering was cold to our feet in winter. Two single iron-frame hospital-type beds placed one against each wall, a couple of army blankets… Painted sunrises on internal and external doors to brighten our day.” They passed the time sharing spooky stories, reading comics and pulling faces. Goodnight kisses from their father, Kenneth, came with a side order of stubble-to-cheek rub christened “chin pie”. 

Then there were the Charlie Chaplin matinees, tea-fuelled rambles and annual trips to Hull Fair, where they stayed with a great aunt who gave Hyacinth Bucket a run for her money: “‘How har you today?’ she asked. ‘Har you having a good time?’ Seemingly, adding an ‘h’ implied she was posh… A considerate smoker, after a meal, she lit her cigarette, inhaled deeply, lifted the hem of the tablecloth and blew her smoke under the table.” 

David Hockney Self Portrait 1954 Collage on newsprint  Credit: © David Hockney

John is at his best in these pen portraits, which envelop the reader with their warmth. He is especially good on his father, Kenneth, a conscientious objector during the Second World War and a pacifist campaigner after it. The book’s subtitle – “Never worry what the neighbours think” – was Kenneth’s mantra, and the standard by which all of the Hockney children have measured their lives since. “I have followed it all my life,” says John. 

It’s all the more poignant to learn why that saying was drummed into them. Kenneth was “tormented verbally and physically by work colleagues” for his pacifist stance. “Coward” was painted on their house each night by a neighbour, and every morning Hockney Snr would wash if off. Philip and Paul, then at school, were bullied in the playground. “They innocently questioned why he didn’t fight,” writes John. “Even mum felt he should do more. It was many years before I fully comprehended his position.”

Kenneth is so vividly drawn: an eccentric who loved old-time music hall songs and penny gags, who kept his sets of false teeth in jars labelled “Best Teeth, Next Best Teeth, Poor Teeth”, who wore a clip-on bow tie to which he had affixed brightly coloured stationery dots, and white paper shirt collars from Woolworths that he covered with patterned adhesive so that they could be wiped clean and re-worn. 

To make ends meet, Kenneth reconditioned doll prams – a business he ran sitting in the phone box at the end of the road for two hours every Saturday. When he wasn’t doing that, he wrote letters to world leaders. Gandhi, Khruschev and the Archbishop of Canterbury were intrigued enough to reply.

One begins, here, to see the roots of David’s dogged artistic obstinacy – in his decision, for instance, to paint figuratively in the Sixties, a time when every other artist was engaged in abstraction, conceptualism or minimalism. His coming of age is told gradually, in piquant little flashes that leave you wonderstruck at his tenacity. We see him, aged nine, stealing downstairs before dawn, so that he could draw in the margins of the daily newspaper (paper was scarce) and, later, deliberately failing his exams so that he could go to art school.

Telling David’s story in this splintered fashion, woven into a much wider one, is, of course, true to how it feels to experience another’s life from the sidelines. It is as though John is working his way backwards to make sense of the extraordinary thing that had been under his nose but at the time had simply passed him by. “I had no perception he was to become one of the greatest artists of the 21st century. He quietly kept his own counsel about his life plan.”

My Mother, Bolton Abbey, Yorkshire, Nov 1982 by David Hockney

This is, I think, the book’s most intriguing aspect. What is it like – really like – to have a celebrity, a genius, for a brother? Many of us know the smack of envy that can come with sibling rivalry, though I don’t sense it in John’s account. His contribution to the Hockney story seems to come from a point of bewildered wonder. Describing his brother at work: “It is what he wants to do – what is essential to his being. If he cannot paint or draw life will end… his art is everything – his devotion.” 

Though John reflects from time to time on the ways in which David’s fame has touched their lives, it is done matter-of-factly. Nor does he dwell on the celebrities he and his family encounter on their frequent trips to California. Maggie Smith pops up in passing, as does Michael Caine, but only because the Hockney boys’ elderly mother, Laura, wanted to ask the actor why no one hung their washing out to dry in Hollywood. 

Are there points to criticise? Perhaps the recounting of each sibling’s achievements drifts toward the Christmas round robin, and the bits about grandparents aren’t hugely enlightening. But it would be silly to quibble about these moments, because the essential treatment is so enormously appealing: good-natured, bluntly told, skimmed with Yorkshire humour.

Call 0844 871 1514 to order for £19.99