I dare say some people will be surprised to see David Hockney's whimsical-looking watercolours of the East Yorkshire countryside being taken seriously on these pages. Hockney is not a conceptual artist; there are no vitrines or blood or human hair in his work, which makes him deeply unfashionable from the off. Neither do his paintings have the dark edge of, say, Bacon or the cool postmodernism of the Turner shortlisted darling Gillian Carnegie. But for those of us who like to see his work filtered through his backstory, there is always more to them than the literal representation of a scene.
In this case, firstly, there's his choice of medium. Hockney has rarely worked in watercolour, and part of its appeal for him now is almost certainly the fact that it has been rejected as a serious medium by every hip young artist on the block. 'People don't use watercolour any more?' you can imagine him saying. 'Then I like watercolour!' So over the course of summer 2004 he set out to record the landscape of his youth " the gently rolling farmland between Bradford and the East Coast " in the medium of Samuel Palmer and John Sell Cotman, the British masters of the 19th-century watercolour.
The 36 paintings that are the result of this gentle summer pastime are hung in six rows of six in the lobby gallery of the Gilbert Collection at Somerset House. It's not a location particularly conducive to the study of paintings; and the context is rather odd too since the focus of the host collection is a group of snuff boxes studded with precious stones. But the perversity of this is also rather Hockney-ish.
Because of the medium and the age-old subject of ripe cornfields and country lanes, you'd be hard pushed to fix a date on these paintings; as you approach them from a distance they resemble a series of 1950s children's book covers framed and preserved under glass. …