David Hockney's portrait of Barry Humphries in L.A.


David Hockney RA returns to the Academy this summer with his sparkling new series of portraits. Barry Humphries, creator of Dame Edna Everage and friend of the artist, recounts his experience of sitting for a portrait in Hockney’s Los Angeles studio.

David Hockney has drawn me twice and painted my portrait once – the painting goes on show at the Royal Academy this summer together with his other recent portraits. Last year I was performing one of my innumerable farewell shows in a seven-week season in Los Angeles, so I found that I could visit my artist friend on several occasions. On one of these he said he’d like to paint me.

I have known David for a long time but he was a particularly close friend of my late father-in-law Stephen Spender, with whom he collaborated on China Diary (1982): a record in words and pictures of their visit to China in the early 1980s. But David had been a friend of the family long before that book and he even designed the invitation to my wife Lizzie Spender’s 21st birthday. David made paintings and drawings of many of the poets and writers who had come to fame in the 1930s, notably Auden and Isherwood, as well as Spender. He loves to draw people, and in this art he exceeds the work of all his contemporaries.

So it was, one morning in early March last year, having cancelled a trip to New York, I set off from my favourite Beverly Hills hotel for my first sitting in David’s studio way up on Mulholland Drive. My preferred accommodation is a rather modest affair and was recommended to me by Billy Wilder, whom I first met at David’s place in Malibu about 20 years ago. The hotel was, and still is, a ’70s time-warp with a Hockney-like swimming pool beside which only the most obscure movie stars have ever reclined. David has not only immortalised Los Angeles, but forever changed the way we look at swimming pools.

After he moved to Los Angeles in 1978, David’s first studio was on Santa Monica Boulevard. He commuted up and down Nichols Canyon from his house on Mulholland Drive, painting the canyon, as well as making his famous full-length ‘portrait’ of Mulholland Drive. Hockney built a studio at his home in 1982 after he bought the adjacent house from the actor Tony Perkins (whom he never met). Everyone in Los Angeles – or that end of it – lives in a house that belonged to someone else. For a long time I rented a rambling old farmhouse with its own lemon grove and colony of rats that had formerly belonged to the film star Myrna Loy. And I once nearly bought a modernist villa in Los Feliz where that forgotten crooner and heartthrob of the early ’30s, Russ Columbo, had been fatally shot under mysterious circumstances.

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