David Hockney trusts his instincts. In 2018, while in London to unveil his Westminster Abbey windows in honor of the Queen, Hockney decided he needed a break. He and his longtime assistant, Jean-Pierre Gonçalves de Lima (J.P.), escaped to Honfleur on the coast of Normandy. Besides the appealing prospect of a few days of rest and good food, Hockney was on a mission: he wanted to revisit Queen Matilda’s 11th-century tapestry at nearby Bayeux.

Hockney found what he was searching for. It confirmed his hunch that the enormous 230-foot-long embroidered cloth was actually an anomaly in the history of Western picture-making. Not only does the tapestry vividly chronicle the two-year-long Norman conquest of England—which culminated with the Battle of Hastings, in 1066—it does so, Hockney realized, without using shadows or reflections. For Hockney, the Bayeux tapestry had more in common with Chinese scroll painting (also devoid of shadow and reflection) than with Western image-making. Hockney saw that one had to “read” the tapestry in time and in sections—just as one unfurls a scroll.