Queuing for Hockney at the Royal Academy

Is it just a coincidence that there are two so-called ‘blockbuster’ art exhibitions on in London at the moment?  And are they both intrinsically huge attractions or is there something about the current social and economic environment that has made more people both willing and able to attend exhibitions on cold Tuesday mornings?

In December I participated in the great British queueing event that is the line for the purchase of day tickets to the Leonardo exhibition at the National Gallery, and this week I waited to buy a ticket at the Royal Academy for the David Hockney show, A Bigger Picture.  Queuing is not my preferred activity, nor am I averse to booking tickets online in advance, but for both these events demand was so great that if you didn’t react within a day of the tickets being made available, then you were too late.

In fact, every time I tried to access the Royal Academy website, it had crashed, presumably because of over demand.  So rather than wait for the promised future release of more tickets once they had ‘studied the pattern of visitors’, I elected to take a chance and queue.

When I walked past the RA building at 8:15 there was one person waiting, a lady in a rather nice red coat, so I went and had a coffee inside, out of the newly chilly weather.  When I got back at 9, there were half a dozen more people there, so I’d not lost much for my 45 minutes in the warm.

There are three categories of people who might visit the show, and each category has its own line; people with tickets bought in advance, Members who have to obtain a timed entrance ticket (although it’s free) and, finally, the ticketless.  By the time the doors opened at 10am, all three lines were very densely populated.

We bought our tickets and were admitted to the first room of the show within about 15 minutes, so, for all the crush, the process worked to keep people moving.  And while there were plenty of people in all the rooms, it wasn’t overcrowded.

And what did we see?

Lots and lots of paintings.  It was almost as if the multiplicity of canvases, single works and works spread over a grid of multiple canvases, and prints, was the point of the show.  There were lots of rooms, and he filled them all with landscapes, large and small.

I hesitate to comment on such a widely liked and respected artist, because I know so little about painting, but I don’t think I got it.  I certainly didn’t understand the point of ‘sketching’ on an iPad and then printing the results on big sheets of paper, thus highlighting the worminess of every stroke and mark of colour.

The show did make me think about the necessity of intense looking, and the depiction of the same landscapes in each of the four seasons offered the opportunity to reflect on the details that are hidden or revealed in different conditions.  I did enjoy, in particular, the four related works Three Trees, images of a stand of trees near Thixendale, which greet you in the first room of the exhibition.

Maybe because I’m currently doing a drawing course, I was very interested in the charcoal sketches on show, preparatory works for some of the woodland paintings.  Leaning in to look more closely I could see the lines and marks that had created the effects; but these were the only pieces that benefited from close inspection, everything else looked much better from a distance.

I’m pleased I went, because I’m now able to make up my own mind, but it didn’t convert me into a fan, which was a surprise.

And as I was writing this, I received an email from the RA telling me that more online booking tickets were now on sale.  Heyho.

Leave a comment


  1. It sounds wonderful, despite your not being a fan. I would be there like a bear if I was in London. And speaking of exhibitions, Alex (my daughter) is going to the da Vinci exhibition somewhere in your part of the world today, with a friend of mine. Will you go to that? And if you do, will it be today? And if it is, will you please keep an eye out for her and make sure she is eating properly and wearing warm clothes? Thanks. (sorry for drifting off from the subject of your clever post with maternal dribblings…)

    • Hi Jill. I’d love to discuss the show with a Hockney fan to see if they could help me ‘get it’!

      I’ve seen the da Vinci – I loved the sketches, but it was very crowded. I hope Alex has a ticket because otherwise there’s a 2 hour wait (outside)for day tickets and it’s properly freezing here today.

  2. I was introduced to David Hockney’s work in 1981 by my enthusiastic Art School Graduate sweetheart who took me to every art exhibition he could, in both Edinburgh and London. My impression then was of a very ‘normal’ little man with big glasses who was gay…and painted swimming pools, palm trees and naked men.
    Back then we did not have Google Images, nor your enlightening Blog to introduce subjects for thought, and stimulate further research…I note Hockney has been very busy since 1981…
    I am so glad I went to so many ‘live’ exhibitions then, in my salad days…and equally glad I have computer now to research and discover, as I turn into an old roast vegetable.

    From Wikipedia I quote…
    “Hockney’s older sister, Margaret, who lives in Yorkshire, is an artist of still life photos.

    Hockney was born with synesthesia; he sees synesthetic colours to musical stimuli. In general, this does not show up in his painting or photography artwork too much. However, it is a common underlying principle in his construction of stage sets for various ballets and operas, where he bases the background colours and lighting upon his own seen colours while listening to the music of the theatre piece he is working on.”

    • Yes, I’d only seen some of the paintings of swimming pool and sunkissed boys before. This RA show is all landscape, most very recent, and the point seemed to the prolific numbers of works and the repetition, which sadly didn’t retain my interest to the end of the show.
      Given the synaesthesia comments – his interior world must be cacophonous, so much vivid purple and acidic orange in the recent paintings.

  3. Roshi Fernando

     /  March 20, 2012

    Thank you for this blog – I was wondering whether it was worth putting an 11 year old through the trauma of queuing, when there’s so much other art in London to see. I think we’ll skip it and buy the book. I completely agree with you that I really really don’t get it – particularly the iPad stuff. I can thoroughly recommend the Lucien Freud exhibition. It was overwhelming. I loved seeing his evolution as an artist.

    • Thank you. I wouldn’t want to put any one off trying it out for themselves and forming their own view. On the other hand if time and patience are limited, I think there are more interesting things to see. If you do decide to queue I think you have to approach it as part of the overall experience, otherwise it is a huge drag. I’ve heard others say that they loved the swathes of bright contrasting primary colours, but they didn’t do it for me.

      I think I’m going to pass on the Lucien Freud this time – I went to a big show a few years ago at Tate Britain, and was unsettled by it – perhaps that’s the point, but my over riding reaction was to reflect that people look so much better with clothes on!


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