Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy [David Hockney]

Sarah Oesterling


David Hockney's wedding portrait of Ossie Clark and Celia Birtwell foretold an unfortunate future.

Is it a coincidence that the fashion power couple who invented the modern catwalk by making it a “happening” are painted here holding a cat? Probably, yes! It doesn’t make this couple whose fashions have inspired Prada, Gucci, and Marc Jacobs any less of a catch.

The designs of Ossie Clark combined with the textiles of Celia Birtwell (Mrs. Clark) created some of the greatest looks of the Swingin’ Sixties worn by Mick Jagger, Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minelli, Twiggy, etc. In fact, the image you have of women wearing long flowy but fitted dresses with a delicate floral print? Yeah, they invented that (or at least reinvented it). Ossie is also not credited with but rumored to have been the man behind the reemergence of the formal pantsuit for women. Yves Saint-Laurent gets that design credit with his 1966 Le Smoking, but sketches of Ossie’s and snapshots dating the two together in 1964 suggest that while Yves Saint-Laurent may wear the pants in the fashion-house, but Ossie designed them. 

Both from England, Ossie and Celia met initially in a coffee shop and were later reintroduced by a mutual friend while studying at Regional College of Art in Manchester. The story goes that Ossie became interested in design in grade school when an excellent teacher recognized his artistic eye and began giving him fashion glossies (British for magazines an archaic form of journalism in which articles and photographs were printed and mailed to subscribers). His lifelong struggle with addiction began around this time with his mother giving him uppers so he could stay awake to deal with the school commute. Celia also got an early start in fashion, her mother was a seamstress and she began studying textiles by age 13. They were fashionably fated to be together, but like Romeo and Juliet, it wasn’t meant to last. 

The couple married in 1969 at the peak of their creative partnership and careers. This portrait was started in 1970 as a wedding gift from best-man David Hockney who had used Celia as a model several times and spent a summer in college driving around America with Ossie doing drugs and possibly each other. The composition is purposely reminiscent of The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan Van Eyck, but here the power roles are reversed with the pregnant Celia (the couple had two children) standing above Ossie and looking directly at the viewer. She’s also in line with a bunch of lilies which we learned in Symbolism 101= purity, while Ossie holds a cat which= sexy slutty times alluding to his bisexuality and infidelities. “Percy” the cat is actually Blanche the cat but Hockney thought Percy sounded better in the title. The painting on the wall supposedly references A Rake’s Progress by William Hogarth as an allusion to Ossie’s libertine lifestyle, but from here it just looks like a bunch of shapes and could just as easily be a Pollock or Picasso.

Unfortunately for the couple, the fortune-telling Hogarssco in the corner knew what was up. The couple divorced in 1974. Despite claiming that Celia and his sons were the loves of his life, Ossie couldn’t keep it together for the kids. It wasn’t punk that was dead in the 80s, but Ossie’s career that suffered in the face of the edgier style. His lines had a few resurrections and in 1996 when his Italian lover Diego Cogolato had a psychotic, possibly drug induced, episode and stabbed Ossie to death at the age of 54 his career was still on the mend. His fashions, especially those he’d worked on with Celia are extremely coveted and still worn frequently by celebrities (fashion goddess Emma Watson wore one in 2009 to the London premiere of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince). Celia is still alive and creating beautiful textiles, focusing on lines for older women who want to be ultra-chic.