Smoking: the greatest muse of David Hockney

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Every great artist must have their muse. If you look across the history of art, there are countless stories of gifted artists and those who inspired them; Claude Monet had Camille Doncieux, Andy Warhol had Edie Sedgewick, and Francis Bacon had George Dyer, to name only a few. When it comes to David Hockney, perhaps Britain’s greatest living artist, he has had numerous muses over the years, but none have had quite the same impact as his greatest love: tobacco.

Since his early days in the industrial landscape of Bradford, Hockney could often be found with a cigarette in his mouth. The artist first began smoking at the age of 16 while at the Bradford School of Art, and it soon became a signature look for the Yorkshireman. Soon, the wider world would become accustomed to the image of Hockney as he relocated to Los Angeles in 1964, where he would create his most iconic and recognisable works, including A Bigger Splash and Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures). Despite residing in the health-obsessive land of California, Hockney never lost his passion for puffing on a cigarette.

Hockney’s image is almost as recognisable as his paintings, characterised by his platinum blonde hair, thick-rimmed glasses and, of course, a cigarette. It is not much of a rarity for artists to smoke, indeed if you looked at every artist throughout the 20th century, you’d probably find more who smoked than those who did not, but few held as deep an appreciation for tobacco as David Hockney. In fact, the artist feels so strongly about smoking that he tirelessly campaigned against the 2005 smoking ban and has since taken every opportunity to espouse the joys of tobacco.

In a move that would bring a tear to the eye of Bill Hicks, Hockney appeared at the Labour Party Conference in 2005, holding a sign that read, “DEATH awaits you all even if you do smoke”. Since that period, as successive governments have sought to crack down on smoking, Hockney’s position has never faltered. In an op-ed published after the smoking ban had passed, the artist affirmed, “I smoke for my mental health. I think it’s good for it, and I certainly prefer its calming effects to the pharmaceutical ones (side effects unknown),” adding, “Well, you say, smoking has dreadful side effects. Certainly on some people, but not on all”.

Whatever the truth behind the harmful side effects of smoking – of which there are many which are proven and well-documented – none of them seem to have had an effect on the 86-year-old. Now residing in Normandy, Hockney continues to work tirelessly on artwork with cigarettes in hand. You can imagine, therefore, his fury at the recent efforts by the Conservative government to restrict the sale of tobacco products.

Writing in The Times, Hockney provided a searing response to Rishi Sunak’s attempts to restrict tobacco, sharing, “I have smoked for 70 years. I started when I was 16 and I’m now 86 and I’m reasonably fine, thank you”. Explaining his deep appreciation for smoking, he continued, “I just love tobacco and I will go on smoking until I fall over. Like trees, we are all different, and I’m absolutely certain I am going to die,” before mustering up that famous Hockney wit, “In fact, I’m 100 percent sure I’m going to die of a smoking-related illness or a non-smoking-related illness”.

So, while many muses have come and gone over the years, each inspiring new avenues of artistry within the mind of David Hockney, it seems as though nothing and nobody can rival his deeply rooted love for cigarettes. Is his refusal to quit a rebellion against increasingly authoritarian governments, or simply his stubborn Yorkshire ways rising to the top? Either way, it seems pretty unlikely that Hockney will give up the habit anytime soon.

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