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January 26 2012

Don't call me Sir

From Lucian Freud to Roald Dahl, creative talents have long been rejecting honours from the Queen. But why? Maybe they just don't want to be part of an elite gang of Fred Goodwins

Why are creative people so deeply sceptical of Britain's honours system? Previously top secret details revealed today show that artists including Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and LS Lowry rejected honours from the Queen as well as such writers as Roald Dahl and Graham Greene. What made them so reluctant to be rewarded by the British establishment?

None of these artists were known radicals. They were not on record as being republicans – although Francis Bacon is said to have once booed Princess Margaret when she insisted on singing at a party. Simple politics cannot be the explanation. It must be something harder to pin down, something in the nature of OBEs and knighthoods and the rest.

In a perhaps not unrelated story, the government was wondering today about stripping former Royal Bank of Scotland boss Sir Fred Goodwin of his knighthood. And this might be a clue to the artists' snubs of royal honours – not that LS Lowry somehow foresaw the banking crisis when he said no five times. The fact is that public honours in Britain are bound up not just with royalty and snobbery and memories of empire, but also with the bonding of a business elite, a political elite, a judicial elite, and local elites. As we become more self-critical as a nation, it is starting to look like Sir Fred's honour was no exception – that there is something insidiously corrupt about the way the honours system binds the top people.

Why would a serious artist want to be part of that? Why would Freud want what bankers and police chiefs get?

France has the Légion d'honneur, which over a long period has established a reputation for rewarding cultural excellence. It is a known international recognition for writers or film-makers to get it. By contrast, Britain's gongs resemble an establishment club, presided over by royalty, in which no special aura is granted to the creative. They are not cool.

In 1950s to 1980s Britain, when philistinism was an overt part of British upper-middle class life, it would have been particularly unattractive for artists to join that club. These artists – including Lowry – clearly thought of themselves as bohemians and had no taste at all for recognition alongside mayors and newspaper owners.

Perhaps it is time to create a new honour specifically for creative achievement. Or perhaps that would just be a new corruption.

In some deep sense, these unlikely dissidents were not just rejecting the Queen – they were rejecting the tone of British life itself. They saw the corruption that others are only now starting to acknowledge.


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Roald Dahl and CS Lewis among writers revealed to have refused honours

List of authors to turn down OBEs, CBEs and knighthoods also includes Aldous Huxley, Robert Graves and Evelyn Waugh

Authors CS Lewis, Roald Dahl and Aldous Huxley all turned down honours from the Queen, newly released documents have revealed.

A freedom of information request saw the list of people to have rejected an honour between 1951 and 1999 and since died published last night by the Cabinet Office . Literary names were prominent amongst those to have said no to CBEs, OBEs and knighthoods in the annual New Year or Birthday Honours list, with Dahl, Lewis, and Huxley – who turned down a knighthood – joined by fellow naysayers Eleanor Farjeon, the children's author, the poets Philip Larkin and Robert Graves, who said no to both a CBE and a CH (Order of the Companions honour), literary critic FR Leavis, Booker winner Stanley Middleton and the authors JB Priestley and Evelyn Waugh.

In the past, this information has generally only been made public if the individuals to have snubbed the recognition announce it themselves – a step taken by the poet Benjamin Zephaniah in 2003, when he wrote in the Guardian: "Me? I thought, OBE me? Up yours, I thought. I get angry when I hear that word 'empire'; it reminds me of slavery, it reminds of thousands of years of brutality, it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised."

Novelist JG Ballard rejected a CBE for services to literature the same year, saying: "I think it's deplorable when left-wing playwrights like David Hare, who have worn their socialist colours on both sleeves for so many years, should accept a knighthood. God almighty, this man actually knelt down in front of the Queen."

Also included on the list of 277 individuals refusing honours between 1951 and 1999 are the sculptor Henry Moore, the artist Lucian Freud, the film director Alfred Hitchcock – although he later accepted a knighthood – and the painters Francis Bacon and LS Lowry. Lowry was the individual to have rejected recognition from the Queen the most often, turning down a total of five honours, including a knighthood.


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December 13 2010

Quentin Blake art to be auctioned

Pictures by Eric Carle, Nick Park and Raymond Briggs are also on display for first time

Original drawings from the creators of some of the best loved children's books of all time, including Quentin Blake and Eric Carle, have gone on public display for the first time before an auction at Sotheby's on Thursday to raise funds for a permanent £6.5m museum of illustration in London.

The pictures have estimates of up to £5,000, so children are unlikely to find them in their Christmas stockings. That is just as well in the case of some of the more adult offerings, such as Gerald Scarfe's savage image of Tony Blair signing his memoirs in a blizzard of drops of blood.

Also on show are works by Nick Park, the creator of Wallace and Gromit, Raymond Briggs, and The Gruffalo's illustrator Axel Scheffler.

"There is such a strong tradition of illustration in this country, but there is no place where you can go and see these things permanently on display," Quentin Blake said. "There are wonderful things which we hope we will be able to borrow from the V&A and the British Museum, but normally they are never on display. And we hope the centre will also operate as a meeting and display place for young illustrators – once they graduate, they're very much on their own these days."

Blake, who formed a legendary partnership with the writer Roald Dahl to create The BFG, Matilda, The Twits and many others, has donated several pieces to the auction. The centre, The House of Illustration, is planned for a Victorian building in King's Cross near the Guardian office which will also be the new home of Central St Martins art college. It will house Blake's own archive of thousands of drawings for more than 200 books, valued at £3m. He hopes other illustrators will follow his example. His own archive is still expanding rapidly: he draws almost every day, and is working on a book and a series of huge drawings of mothers and babies for a maternity hospital in France.

Other artists, many of them friends whose arms Blake has twisted, have given works to the auction, some specially created, some famous originals. There are also pieces by Jan Pienkowski, Mick Inkpen, and cartoonists including Peter Brookes, Ronald Searle, Scarfe, and Paula Rego, better known as a Turner prize nominated painter.

The auction pieces, with other illustrations loaned for the exhibition, will be on display at Sotheby's in Bond Street, central London, until the sale on Thursday.


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November 17 2010

Drawn together: Jude and Quentin

Quentin Blake has drawn 20 murals for a children's theatre. For the unveiling, he'll be interviewed by life-long fan Jude Law. The pair speak to Steve Rose

This Saturday, Jude Law and Quentin Blake will officially unveil the 20 new murals Blake has created for the Unicorn children's theatre in London – a parade of friendly, theatrical characters in his distinctive spidery scrawl that scramble around the venue's stairwell.

To Law, like so many others, Blake is something of a hero. "To be honest with you, my memory of him goes about as far back as I can remember," he says. "Those wonderful, spiky-haired, smiley faces are so interlinked with growing up in general. It's like he was illustrating one's own childhood." Law's earliest memories of Blake are his illustrations for Roald Dahl's stories. "For some reason, I always remember the little boys who are stuck to a branch in The Twits, and they have to leave their trousers behind and run home with their bums in the air. I don't know why that should be closely linked to my childhood. The other is The Giraffe, The Pelly and Me; it reminds me of reading to my own kids."

Blake is less familiar with Law's work. In fact, he hasn't seen any of it. But he's perfectly aware of who Law is, and reckoned it would be more interesting, for Saturday's event, if he was in conversation with an actor on stage rather than a writer, this being a theatre. "I just thought there would be an element of contrast, and that we'd have something new to talk about."

Law is in the middle of shooting the sequel to Guy Ritchie's 2009 Sherlock Holmes, playing Doctor Watson opposite Robert Downey Jr's Holmes. "One thing I can tell you I don't do is go back and look at other people," says Law. "Especially with a character like Watson, who's been portrayed by so many actors. The earliest portrayals have had a knock-on effect, which have taken him away from Conan Doyle's, so we've tried to go back to the books and fill in the blanks. There's a lot in his backstory: military life in Afghanistan, a decorated soldier, successful rugby player – quite a man's man rather than a sort of doddering overweight fool."

The actor found also himself in a similar situation, naturally enough, with Hamlet, which he has been performing at various venues over the past two years. "The beautiful thing about that part is that there are so many chambers available to you. The depths of suggestion, the use of language, which night after night reveals so many possibilities. Having said that, I won't be doing him again any time soon."

Would they like to do each other's jobs? Blake hasn't acted since he was a schoolboy, he says, although it was usually Shakespeare plays. Law used to draw a lot as a child, he says. His sister is a professional artist, and he was studying A-level art when, at 17, he dropped out of school to become an actor. Despite his success, his relationship with acting is still ambivalent. "There's always times when you think, 'Why aren't I enjoying this any more?' You have to slink off and recuperate and re-evaluate what you're doing and why. I'm constantly doing that. I think it's a healthy approach to the work."

Understandable, perhaps, given the perennial public interest in Law's private life, but being a father also changed his perspective. "On the one hand, you need to work in order to support your family; and on the other, the idea of going away to work, which you often have to, has to really be worthwhile. Sometimes you're sitting on your own in a grim hotel abroad somewhere, and even if you're earning money to put food on the table, you think, 'What am I doing with my life?'"

Blake had a similar childhood conviction, but unlike Law, there was no set career path. Despite a subsequent career of steady, contented production, he's still branching out. As well as the Unicorn theatre murals, he regularly does work for hospitals, not to mention products such as wallpaper and Dahl merchandising. He's as busy as ever.

Finally, since this will be a children's event, any advice for youngsters with ambitions in your fields? "There is no structure for doing this," says Blake. "I suppose you draw as much as you can."

"If you have the good fortune of being in this country, perform on stage," says Law. "Don't feel like acting is about being on TV or in the movies. In order to become better, you've just got to do it. And don't take criticism badly."

Quentin Blake and Jude Law appear at Animated! on Saturday at the Unicorn theatre, London SE1. Details: 020-7645 0560.


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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