DAVID OXTOBY with his portrait of John Lee Hooker. Christies, London 1991.
I first met the artist Dave Oxtoby when a friend of mine, the blues man Dave Foster, asked me to take some photographs at Oxtoby’s retrospective exhibition which was taking place at the Cartwright Hall, Bradford in 1991.
Although Oxtoby was born in Horsforth near Leeds, he found fame as one of the ‘Bradford Mafia,’ a quintet of artists which included his friends David Hockney, Norman Stevens, John Loker and Michael Vaughan. He is best known for his paintings depicting the rock and roll artists he loves so much and he’s one of Pop Art’s most respected figures.
Dave was the original ‘never meet your heroes’ advocate. When he was the ‘Visiting Professor of Art’ at Minneapolis University from 1964 to 1965, he received a phone call from the Graceland office in Memphis with an invitation to spend the weekend there. Elvis Presley, having bought some of his paintings wanted to meet Dave. Oxtoby turned down the invitation – a decision he may have regretted after he met Little Richard and realised that meeting your heroes wasn’t so bad after all.
I sometimes stayed at Dave’s home overlooking Clapham Common in London which he shared with his beloved cat, Pudding. The house was once owned by the actress Elsa Lanchester, aka The Bride of Frankenstein and wife of Charles Laughton.
Often the phone would ring and Dave, a great conversationalist and teller of jokes, would be on the line for ages. I would ask, ‘Who was that then, Dave?’ and he would reply it was Hockney, McCartney, Connolly or any number of household names. He told me about leaving his New York hotel room in June 1968, to meet Andy Warhol. The phone rang as he was going out of the door with the message that Andy had been shot (by Valerie Solanas). Dave also told me about being out on the town in 1970 with his friend, Jimi Hendrix, just a few nights before Jimi died.
Dave’s book, Oxtoby’s Rockers is an essential purchase for lovers of art and music. His follow up book, Oxtoby’s Lost Rockers, unfortunately came about when a lorry carrying his paintings from an new exhibition in Switzerland was stolen. Discovering that the cargo wasn’t the antiques they expected, the thieves burnt all the canvasses. Fortunately these great works of art had been photographed before leaving London – some consolation for a heart broken artist who deserved so much better.
The art historian Marco Livingstone described Oxtoby’s work as, “Capturing the energy, violence and colourful style of the music that formed the soundtrack to his life.” That just about sums it up perfectly.
A print of Oxtoby’s brilliant painting of Little Richard, signed by the artist and by ‘The Georgia Peach’ himself proudly hangs on my wall. There are original works art dotted about the house of Ray Charles and Elvis Presley that Dave generously gave me in exchange for some prints of my photographs that I’d given him. I think I got the best deal.
(See next photograph: Duffy Power with his portrait by David Oxtoby, Christies, London 1991).