Throughout the 1960s, regulars at The Sea Catch, a fish and chip shop in Bradford, England, would have been familiar with the lithograph above the deep-fat fryer. But they may not have known that it was an original work by one of the country’s greatest living artists.
The precarious placement of the 1954 work by Bradford-born David Hockney, aptly titled Fish and Chip Shop, would certainly have raised alarm bells among art collectors — had they been aware of its existence. The piece was gifted by the artist in the 1950s to the shop’s proprietors John ‘Hayden’ and Janet Smith, and has never been sold at auction or displayed in a gallery.
Christie’s Prints specialist James Baskerville explains that Hayden and Janet Smith greatly admired Hockney, and the lithograph hung in the shop until it closed some time around 1970 — after which they hung it in their home.
For Baskerville, news of the existence of this impression came as a complete surprise. ‘I came back to my desk one day and had a message from a colleague,’ he recalls. ‘She said, “James, you had a phone call from a gentleman who has a Hockney Fish and Chip Shop. He said his grandparents were the subject of the picture.” Unfortunately, we didn’t have his contact details and there was no way of reaching him, but my colleague had given him my email address, so we had to just wait patiently.’
Luckily for Baskerville, the print’s owner was persistent. ‘Two months later I received an email from him. He was based in the Midlands. When we saw Fish and Chip Shop, it was quite magical,’ Baskerville reveals. It is one of three prints that Hockney made in 1954. The other two are a self-portrait and Woman with Sewing Machine, which is an image of his mother.
‘This print is one of David Hockney’s earliest — one of the first prints he made while studying at Bradford School of Art in 1954, aged 16 or 17,’ Baskerville points out. The ‘quintessentially British’ subject is intimate ‘because it’s the owners together with Hockney, inhabiting the same space.’
Here, Hockney is looking to the French masters of lithography, such as Bonnard and Vuillard… ‘especially Vuillard’s interior scenes’, says the specialist. ‘They have the same atmospheric quality.’
Bradford was hardly the epicentre of the art world in the mid-1950s, but it was here that the young David Hockney first studied the Old Masters, and where his art teachers encouraged him to visit London galleries. ‘[Bradford art students] had to scrimp and save to make the trips. They would go down on the train and then sleep on the Circle Line and wait until the galleries opened,’ Baskerville explains.
As a penniless student, Hockney would head to the fish and chip shop at the end of the day and ask for any leftovers. He presented this work as a way of thanks, although Hayden and Janet Smith couldn’t have imagined what a significant gift it would turn out to be.
In 1961 Hockney won a place at the Royal College of Art, where financial necessity drew him back to printing, a medium he had not touched since 1954. ‘At the Royal College of Art you had to supply your own paints,’ explains Baskerville. ‘He heard that the printing course supplied all the materials, so he signed up to that. And that’s when he starts making these beautiful etchings, such as Kaisarion with All His Beauty.’
Not that the Smiths had any intention of selling the work. ‘Theirs was a personal connection to Hockney, so they saw it less as an artwork and more of a token of friendship,’ says the specialist.
Although the work has not been kept in gallery conditions, it is its unique history, Baskerville insists, that gives it such significance. ‘If you wanted to own any of the approximately five impressions of this piece, this would be the one. It tells a story not just in its subject, but in its provenance.’
For the Smith family, it turned out to be not a bad trade for some leftover fish and chips.