The Wolseley, Piccadilly, London

Wolseley 01

We were “up to London” – we know, it’s really down for us – on an annual pilgrimage to the Royal Academy, this time to see the David Hockney series of 82 portraits and 1 Still Life – 2nd July to 2nd October 2016. It’s another world here – warm and sunny, a regular five degrees warmer than the Mediterranean climate that is Yorkshire. It’s a time to relax and enjoy quiet contemplation of Hockney’s genuine skill as, first and foremost, a painter. We’ve been fans of his work for well over forty years, from his early period in Los Angeles, through his return home to Bridlington, and now back in LA. His sketches, experiments with faxing and his extensive use of drawing on the iPad – successful and exciting as they are – belie his consummate drawing skill. Contrast that with, say, Damien Hurst (another Yorkshireman, sadly) who hasn’t yet demonstrated that he could draw or paint to save his life, merely his skill as a salesman. 

David Hockney once said that art comes in three kinds – landscapes, portraits and still-lifes. This mischievous pronouncement was directed with a wry smile at the high priests of the contemporary art world, where the smart money is on conceptual art, installation, performance, video, and digital art.

You won’t recognize many (any?) people in the portraits; they’re not famous, just his friends and acquaintances. They’re there as props – there’s one still life amongst the collection, when a sitter couldn’t make the appointment; the fruit and vegetables seem to fill the picture just as well. Busy – as with all the RA exhibitions. Alan Bennett, as an Honorary Fellow, can roam the RA after dark, without the crowds, apparently. There’s a story that, as Alan bears a close resemblance to David H, he once drew a self-portrait on a napkin for a waitress and signed it ‘Hockney’ and Hockney once signed one of his self-portraits ‘Bennett’. There’s a memorable photo of Alan Bennett and David Hockney sitting side by side in profile, a photo that invites us to think of them as twin spirits: blond, gay, bespectacled, working-class Yorkshiremen who have both made major contributions to British cultural life.

Hockney retains his Yorkshire roots…

I’ve never bothered about my accent. When I first went to London, to the RCA, I was mocked for it. People would shout, “Trouble at mill, Mr Hockney?” I used to smile and think, “They have no idea what Yorkshire is like, these people.”

Now, just across the road from the RA lies The Wolseley. Built in 1921 as the London showroom for Lord Herbert Wolseley’s range of cars (later just a bit of badge engineering in the doomed British Motor Corporation), the venue became a bank, a dodgy Chinese restaurant, but it finally saw success when Jeremy King and Chris Corbin (of the Ivy fame) sorted it out and opened a rather splendid Viennese café – bit like Bettys. 

The unifying principles are comfort and reliability, rather than culinary brilliance. We’re now some fourteen years on and we’ve been a few times. Today was every bit as good: lobster bisque very, very nearly as good as we make at home, a great main course salad and hake en Papillote, followed by a very fresh mini tarte tatin and a rich treacle tart that would make even Betty envious. Perfect service (of course) – we counted maybe more than thirty staff on the floor – and, best of all, two glasses of simply excellent Mersault. What more could one want?  No unnecessary ceremony, no aloofness, just a companionable contract between customer and server. When it opened, Jay Rayner quite liked it…

But I can already tell you that when I want to sit down over a relaxed dinner with friends…it is to the Wolseley I will go. It’s just that sort of place.

If you want relaxation, good food and a sampling of Mayfair life, look no further. 

Restaurant The Wolseley.

Hockney working on his portraits…

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