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July 30 2012

Letters: No room in the Olympic family for genuine sports fans

My 12-year-old daughter, a member of three sports clubs in Newham, started saving Christmas and birthday money to buy Olympics tick ets. Two weeks at home in the Olympic borough would replace an annual holiday. We spent hours trying  to make a purchase. Our saving and time spent clicking were rewarded with not a single ticket.

This frustration was compounded when we saw rows of empty seats just half a mile from our home and then discovered that at least a fifth of seats are reserved for the Olympic family and their corporate friends (Army brought in to fill seats, 30 July) . The ticketing process is seriously flawed and designed to ensure that those who make a profit through encouraging obesity prevail over those who want to see and learn from their role models. So much for the commitment to "inspire a generation" and "create step change in sporting participation".
Simon Shaw
Stratford, London

• Empty seats filled by soldiers, teachers and schoolkids? Potemkin seats?
Mick Furey
Maltby, Rotherham

• Against a fall in sales pre-Olympics of 6.5% year-on-year, the last two weeks has seen a drop of 26% and last week a drop of almost 38%. Other shops have experienced a similar collapse in sales. Warnings of congestion in central London have made the area a ghost town. How many shops will survive until the end of the Paralympics on 9 September?
Nigel Kemp
London

• One reason that the opening ceremony delighted so many (Letters, 30 July) is that, in an age shaped and limited by politicians and marketing people, this was the vision of an artist.
Nigel Richardson
London

• Was Commander Bond employed to guard the Queen before G4S was found wanting, or was he part of the troops brought in to make up the shortfall.
David Walker
Dudley, West Midlands

• We deplore the article by Ai Weiwei (China excluded its people from the Olympics. London is different, 25 July). People around the world have strong memories of Beijing four years ago. The Games were more successful than many expected. They have left a profound legacy for China. The huge contribution to the international Olympic movement is globally recognised. China's careful preparations and high efficiency won applause from across the world, including the IOC.

The entire Chinese nation showed enormous enthusiasm and interest. They actively participated: 1.7 million volunteers busied themselves. Their smiles were sincere, their participation spontaneous, their hard work selfless. Ai's opinions by no means reflect the true feeling of China's 1.3 billion people. We wish the London Olympics a great success. At the same time, we will not let the Beijing Olympics be diminished or China be falsely accused.
He Rulong
Chinese embassy, London

• I keep getting confused between the main paper and your Olympics supplement.
Chris Faux
London 


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May 31 2012

John Lennon and Yoko Ono: the image that defines the second Elizabethan era

Their famous protest against the Vietnam war let the cameras into the bedroom – and ushered in the age of celebrity

John Lennon and Yoko Ono are staying in bed to protest against war. It is 1969, and the conflict in question is Vietnam. They've just got married. The protest is also their honeymoon – and they drag it out, staging two "bed-ins" at hotels in Amsterdam and Montreal. Inviting the media to witness their recumbent defiance, they abolish the difference between the public and the private.

This, in my view, is the iconic image of the second Elizabethan era: it captures so much that changed during her reign. When Elizabeth was young, men of all classes wore hats as a matter of politeness. Other habits were equally staid: when British soldiers were fighting Japan in Burma in the 1940s, they were disadvantaged because they refused to try the local rice, and would only eat canned "British" food. This picture, taken a little less than 20 years into Elizabeth's reign, shows how the cultural revolution of the 1960s transformed life in ways that are still being worked out today.

By 1969, Britain had travelled a long way from bowler-hatted repression: the country was high not just on drugs and love, but on the medium and the message. The Beatles led an outburst of feeling and free expression. Here, Lennon and Ono sum up the decade's assault on tradition. Newlyweds, they let cameras into their bedroom. They probably didn't know, however, all they were implying by this. As stars, they have allowed the media and their fans total access: the po-faced decencies of 1953 have given way to complete self-exposure as these celebrities treat themselves as public property.

It is an outrageous act of communication - and viewing this moment from the vantage point of 2012, in the 60th year of the second Elizabethan age, we can see a continuity with the cultural revolution we are experiencing today. What exploded in the reign of Elizabeth Windsor was the power of human beings to communicate with one another. And yes, Britain led the way with its 1960s conquest of global popular culture. Pop music was above all a freeing-up of words and gestures, its emotive messages sped by the new availability of records, tapes and transistor radios. Lennon saw clearer than any other star how this could become both a form of political campaigning and obliterate all distance between celebrities and the public.

This photograph is a visual tweet: Lennon and Ono open themselves to the world in the same way everyone is now doing on Twitter and Facebook. Lennon was to experience the dark side of fame – shot dead just because he was a celebrity. But in this picture, the utopian promise of the new Elizabethan age is laid bare: everything and everybody, here and now, together.

Have you taken a photograph that sums up the second Elizabethan era for you? Share your photographs from the last 60 yearsour Art and Design Flickr group. We'll feature a selection of pictures on the site.


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May 26 2012

The Horse: From Arabia to Royal Ascot – review

British Museum, London

The British Museum is a most distinguished and well-stocked stable. You walk into its Great Court and at once spot the emperor Hadrian, mounted on his stone steed, legs dangling, just beyond the information desk. And this is before you've even set foot in the museum's tremendous exhibition – its first devoted to the horse. It's the perfect moment for a celebration. The idea of the horse show was raised in the 90s but has had to wait for the Olympics to give it an extra leg-up. War Horse, in all its manifestations, has contributed extra enthusiasm, and there is a third and royal reason for equine rejoicing: the exhibition is a diamond jubilee gift to the Queen.

John Curtis, one of the curators, explains that there has been much advance interest in the show. Horses, magnificently wordless in themselves, excite passionate differences of opinion in their admirers and the museum has been petitioned, urging that certain breeds be championed. But the museum has faced a challenge: "Most of our exhibitions are monocultural, whereas the horse exists in all cultures." And so partly to avoid a bewildering miscellany, the decision has been taken to put Arab horses in charge of the narrative.

The domestication of the horse is thought to have taken place on the western Euraisan steppes, probably in Kazakhstan, around 3,500BC (the exhibition includes what may be the earliest depiction of a horse and rider, a terracotta mound from Mesopotamia). But the narrative then advances through Islamic history and showcases the emergence of the Arab horse.

It reveals that the bloodlines of modern thoroughbreds can be traced back to three Arabian stallions imported into England in the 18th century (the Darley Arabian, the Byerley Turk and the Godolphin Arabian). The journey we take includes astounding Arab rock paintings of horses and then fetches up in Victorian England to consider the horse's influence on society (the horse traffic jams were terrible), before a racy finish at Ascot and in the modern world.

But we begin by putting the cart – or chariot – before the horse. The first room contains a most enigmatic treasure: the Standard of Ur, a tapered box (2600BC Sumerian) inlaid with a beautiful mosaic of shell, lapis lazuli and red limestone. No one knows what its purpose was but it seems extraordinary that its donkeys – yoked into service before the horse – with heads of fragile shell have survived and are still pulling unwieldy chariots that look disconcertingly like heavy brown prams.

The same room also contains a stunning black-and-white film of Arab horses placed alongside a fragment of an Assyrian 9th-century BC limestone relief. You look from three proud profiles in stone to the Arab horses on film and time becomes thrillingly fused, measured only by the unchanging outline of the horse.

The museum has been hard at work. There's an incredible reconstruction of an Assyrian chariot horse, its harness assembled in fragments – an academic ransacking of the British Museum's tack room. The stone blinkers appear alarmingly heavy. A second formidable warhorse wears late 15th-century Turkish armour and a third sports cheerful, quilted patchwork from 19th-century Sudan.

The exhibition reminds us that the horse is an object of decoration as well as a subject. A chic Egyptian wig-curler (c 1500-1000BC) features a rider and galloping horse – a touch of serpent in its bronze form. And most decorative of all are the exquisitely dainty and diminutive gold chariots (5th-4th century BC from Persia) with filigree reins – a fairy tale earthed in reality: the horses' tails tied in mud knots. And I also admired the 16th-century Turkish stirrups: black iron garlanded with golden flowers. They seem, centuries later, to be haunted by the riders who once put their feet in them.

There is a marvellous sense throughout of riding being celebrated. There's a captivating Indian watercolour (1650-1750), starring Akbar the Great out hunting, bent forward on his horse, with swirling deer around him, as if an eager gale were blowing through the picture. The poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, quoted in the exhibition's superb catalogue, seems to speak for Akbar and riders like him. In his poem St Valentine's Day he reveals that, for him, riding brought about glorious delusion: "My horse a thing of wings, myself a god."

It is Wilfrid Blunt and his wife, Lady Anne, who serve as a bridging device here, bringing the narrative to 19th-century England. They were a remarkable couple, staunch travellers with a passion for Arabia and a mission to preserve the integrity of the Arab horse. They imported horses to Crabbet Park, their West Sussex stud, and there is a priceless photograph of Lady Anne there, in full Arabian regalia, with her mare Kasida. You would laugh were it not for the fact that the woman and horse have a solemn affinity. The story of the Blunts is fascinating (although too complex to relate here). Suffice it to say, the love affair with the horse went better than the marriage.

Only one horsewoman trumps Lady Anne Blunt: Lady Lade. The exhibition would not be complete without George Stubbs, and there are two stupendous portraits here. Lady Lade, or Laetitia, was the mistress of a highwayman and went on to marry a racehorse owner – perhaps this is how she learned to ride. In Laetitia, Lady Lade (1793), she sits on a rearing horse, comically unmoved, the folds of her long blue dress undisturbed. She seems in another world, with an unruffled, crepuscular park behind her. It's a fantastic glorification of horsewomanship. In Gimcrack With John Pratt Up on Newmarket Heath (c1765), there is a similar stillness to the landscape. Another perfect day, but the jockey is inward, the horse's liquid eye shows apprehension – anything could happen.

Towards the end of the exhibition, Cymbeline's famous cry: "O, for a horse with wings!" is up on one of the walls. Yet the final room persuades us in photographs and films of some of the greatest competitive horses and riders alive, including the Queen's horse Free Agent who won at Ascot in 2008, that wings were never necessary.


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The big picture: Salford, Manchester, June 1977

Next week will see thousands of royal jubilee street parties up and down the country. This is how they did it 35 years ago in Stowell Street…

For most of us, after a lifetime of being reigned over, monarchy means matriarchy. The Queen is supposed to be the mother of us all, although, not having done well with her personal brood, she has never seemed eager to clasp the rest of us to her bosom. Instead of a hug we have made do with the distant wave of a gloved hand and a grimly stoical smile. Here, on the day of an earlier jubilee in 1977, she has deputies who do the job more enthusiastically and demonstrate the truth of the metaphor on which the Queen's sovereignty depends. Yes, the nation truly is a family, presided over by a supply of mums as endless as the tapering perspective of that table in the street.

Aprons on, trays in hand, they perform their primal task, which is to serve up cakes and stand guard while they are eaten. Dads are not much in evidence: apart from a few stragglers they have no doubt taken cover in the pub on the corner. Seated at the table are the heirs apparent, mostly princesses, wearing temporary tiaras and crowns of paper. Freud spoke of "His Majesty the Child", a brat whose every screeching whim is catered to by sycophantic parents; here the scene is less neurotic, and the young absolutists, with grown-ups stationed behind their chairs like courtiers, gaze at the banquet without gobbling it up.

Perhaps it's the fixity of the photograph, which has stopped time and deferred the grubby business of eating, but it looks as solemnly ritualistic as any state occasion. The point is not the food; what matters is the long sacramental table with its pristine white cloth, connecting past, present and future as it stretches the length of the street. The contentment captured here is as dated as the clothes – bell-bottoms, over-decorated sweaters – and the floppy haircuts.

A street party will be happening outside my front door in London next weekend. The neighbours have laid on DJs and promise dance lessons; the invitation dismissively advises you to bring your own food. The idea seems to be to go clubbing in the daylight, so it will be noisy but not convivial. Those who live here are unneighbourly, unrooted strangers, not stable families, and any cakes consumed here are bought not home-made.

Instead, I'll probably go for an imaginary walk down this street in Salford, towards a vanishing point lost in the blitz of flapping flags. That is why photographs exist – to remind us that once upon a time we were happy.


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May 18 2012

Belle of the ballgowns: a guide to the V&A exhibition

From a blue-beaded evening dress made for the Queen Mother in 1953 to the silver satin worn by Beyoncé to Obama's inauguration party – the meanings behind the frocks in the new V&A show

In the spring of 1953 London newspapers reported that Norman Hartnell had been ordered by doctors to take several days' rest. "Britain's First Couturier" was, quite simply, exhausted. Not only was Hartnell working flat out making the coronation robe for the new Queen's forthcoming investiture, he was also responsible for the outfits worn by the female members of the royal party, not to mention redesigning the robes for the peeresses of the realm. It was as if the royal dressmaker was in attendance not just on Cinderella, but her fairy godmother, her sisters and the entire chorus line too. And, to add to the pressure, each required a gown of such exquisite loveliness that it would make the watching nation burst with pride.

Sixty years on, with the nation once again getting ready to feel pleased about its knack for putting on a gorgeous display, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London is showing Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950. Some of the dresses – by Hartnell, Victor Stiebel, Zandra Rhodes, Jonathan Saunders and Hussein Chalayan – are from the museum's permanent collection; other dresses have arrived straight from the catwalks of Roland Mouret, Giles, Erdem and Antonio Barardi. Meanwhile, Gareth Pugh, one of the country's more conceptual young designers, has made a leather dress stiffened with silver – more sculpture than ballgown – just for the occasion.

The exhibition takes as its starting point Hartnell's designs for the coronation. There are several gorgeous examples of that signature silhouette, comprising a tight strapless bodice, with a full, bell-shaped skirt – a rustling, silky promise of an age of plenty. One of the most spectacular, a blue-beaded evening dress made for the Queen Mother in 1953, is a timely reminder that ballgowns have never been exclusively for the ingénue. Indeed, they work particularly well on older women. Long, full skirts are forgiving, while elbow-length gloves, stoles and capes break up the line of exposed flesh. These are neat tricks still employed on the red carpet today, as the Jacques Azagury empire-line dress with bolero jacket that Helen Mirren wore to pick up her Bafta for The Queen, demonstrates triumphantly. Another particularly dramatic piece – a backless gown in scarlet-and-black by Victor Edelstein – was worn with panache by a fifty-something Anne Heseltine in 1986.

Once the excitement of the coronation had fallen away, ballgowns stepped out of the spotlight and returned to the grand country house ball. It was here that couture dresses by Hartnell, John Cavanagh, Hardy Amies and Worth reported for duty. And a big part of that duty involved setting off heirloom jewellery to perfection. With an upper class that had never been obliged to flee a revolution with diamonds sewn into its underclothes, Britain still boasted some of the finest private collections of gemstones in the world. This need for a ballgown to work in tandem with show-stopping rocks explains, suggests the exhibition's co-curator Oriole Cullen, why certain jewel-tones reappear so regularly in any parade of British ballgowns. Amid the ivories and creamy pinks you will see singing reds, greens and blues making their return time and time again.

As the 1960s progressed, debutantes were keen to shed the "girls in pearls" tag that had clung to their mothers. Hip young things who wore Mary Quant and Biba by day wanted something similarly sharp for evening. The design duo Belinda Bellville and David Sassoon then entered the market. Their slender, columnar shapes, stopping a good inch or two off the ground, allowed you to kick off your shoes and dance. One example of their work, a mustard-coloured silk sheath bought off the peg by Princess Anne in 1968, still looks fresh today.

As "the season" gradually lost its allure in the 1970s, there were some odd stabs at formal evening wear, including a rock-chic ensemble from Ossie Clark in which a gold leather corset and jacket is set off by a virulent purple lace skirt. Then there is Yuki's raspberry kaftan, which looked lovely on the statuesque Anglo-American actress Gayle Hunnicutt for whom it was originally made, but might make lesser souls (and bodies) look as if they were in a touring production of Abigail's Party. Rhodes, meanwhile, sums up the end of that stylistically difficult decade with an ensemble comprising a black quilted satin bodice, gold pleated lamé skirt and panniers over black tulle. The effect is of Marie Antoinette during her milkmaid days crossed with a giant Ferrero Rocher chocolate.

These off-kilter extravaganzas from the 70s were designed to be worn at the cycle of semi-public events that had begun to replace country house dances. Not only were film premieres, charity balls and museum galas open to anyone who could afford a ticket, they were also spectacles to which millions more had access via TV and newspapers. Ballgowns, in consequence, became increasingly scrutinised for the non-verbal messages they were intended to convey. Into this category comes Catherine Walker's triumphant "Elvis" outfit of 1989, which saw Diana, Princess of Wales, telegraphing her growing independence from the establishment in a figure-hugging white sheath studded with pearls and sequins, topped by an outside collar. A cerise silk gown from Bruce Oldfield, meanwhile, was Bianca Jagger's weapon of choice in the late 70s when she wanted to show Mick just what he was missing by going off with Jerry Hall.

Ballgowns takes full advantage of the V&A's newly lit and restored Octagon Court, with its display of red carpet glamour – where actresses in mostly borrowed frocks replace society women in couture. This faster tempo is picked up by the mannequins, who pose in mid-stride and even, on occasions, do a dynamic twirl. Here you will find a Stella McCartney outfit from 2011 (worn by Annette Bening to the New York Film Critics Circle in New York). What appears at first glance to be a full black satin skirt turns out, on closer inspection, to be flowing trousers, a clever choice that reflects Bening's insider-outsider status. There are classic styles here too, suggesting that even the most successful of professional women can't resist dressing up as a princess. Hence Maggie Gyllenhal's fishtail Mouret dress in sorbet pink worn to the Golden Globes in 2010, alongside Jenny Packham's powder pink crystal gown chosen the following year by Sandra Bullock.

Just as Hartnell's designs for the coronation shaded off into a kind of performance art, Ballgowns ends with work by contemporary designers such as Giles, Gareth Pugh and Alexander McQueen who situated themselves inside a similarly theatrical arena. Craig Lawrence's dress, with bits of what look like aluminium foil and KitKat wrappers stitched on to a knitted tube, produces a satisfying rustling sound, as well as a metallic shimmer. Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen has constructed a gown entirely from ostrich and cock feathers, which turns the wearer into a rather marvellous giant dove. Also on display is the silver satin Ralph & Russo design worn by Beyoncé when she performed at Barack Obama's inauguration ball in 2009. And, finally, just to make the point that, these days, a ballgown can be pretty much anything it choses, there's even a lace-print latex dress by Atsuko Kudo, the woman who regularly shrink-wraps Lady Gaga.


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March 28 2012

Crown jewels exhibition: - audio slideshow

To celebrate the Queen's diamond jubilee, the Tower of London is opening a new £2.5m exhibition of the crown jewels. Hadley Freeman talks us through the highlights



March 23 2012

From the archive, 23 March 1960: Royal collection open to public

Originally published in the Guardian on 23 March 1960

London seems likely to have a new national and international art gallery in Buckingham Palace by about Christmas 1961. If Parliament agrees -it would seem churlish not to - the Queen is willing to open a small part of Buckingham Palace for displays of the royal collection, the finest private collection of Old Masters in the world.
The idea is that the private chapel of the palace, destroyed by a bomb during the war, should be rebuilt to contain a smaller chapel and a small art gallery. For special occasions the gallery could be used as an extension of the chapel. The cost of the proposed rebuilding is £40,000.
The consequences would be that for the first time her subjects would be able to enter the Queen's home and inspect selections of paintings and other works of art brought into the gallery from the palace and from other royal residences. Parts of Windsor Castle and the gardens of Sandringham and Balmoral are opened to the public at certain times, but nothing of the kind has happened up to now at Buckingham Palace.

The royal collections are generous and the most important paintings are so liberally lent out that few of the greatest items have not been seen in public in the last twenty years. There were 80 "royal" items in the last great Italian Exhibition in Burlington House, where - ten years ago - there was also a memorable show drawn exclusively from the royal collections. The main glories are Canalettos, Venetian masterpieces, Van Dycks, Holbeins, Italian Primitives, Reynoldses, Gainsboroughs and the Lely series of "beauties" and "admirals". They are well distributed among royal residences. Art historians have often speculated about what would have been the situation if Cromwell had not had his famous (or some say infamous) sale of Charles the First's collection, remnants of which are still among the main treasures.
When the new gallery is organised it will, of course, need a curator and a catalogue or series of catalogues. The surveyor of the Queen's pictures is Sir Anthony Blunt, who is also director of the Courtauld Institute. His deputy is Mr Oliver Millar, and between them they have all the knowledge needed to produce the catalogue. It might seem logical for Mr Millar to have day-to-day charge of the Buckingham Palace gallery, for he already does so much of the sort of work that would be involved.


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January 01 2012

David Hockney joins Order of Merit

Artist who refused to paint the Queen or accept knighthood is appointed to the exclusive royal order

He was the 1960s radical who turned British painting on its head, but on Sunday the Queen sealed David Hockney's transformation into national treasure by appointing him to the Order of Merit.

Buckingham Palace announced that the 74-year-old Bradford-born painter and photographer would join the select group of individuals who have achieved distinction in the arts, learning, science and public service.

Hockney's appointment follows the death in 2011 of his friend Lucian Freud, the only painter in the order – which has no more than 24 members at one time.

Hockney's selection appeared to confirm the establishment view that he is now seen as the leading British painter of his day. Augustus John and Graham Sutherland were previous members of the exclusive order, which has its own insignia featuring the crown, a laurel wreath and the words in gold lettering "for merit".

Hockney, a smoker who has campaigned for smokers' rights, responded to news of the honour yesterday with a self-deprecating joke. "No comment," he said. "Other than it's nice to know they are not prejudiced against the older smoker."

He recently turned down a request to paint a portrait of the Queen, saying he was too busy painting landscapes, and in 1990 he rejected a knighthood.

"I do not think life is about prizes," he told the Bradford Telegraph and Argus in 2003 when asked about his decision to refuse the KBE. "I put them all in the bottom drawer and leave them there. I don't value prizes of any sort. I value my friends. Prizes of any sort are a bit suspect."

Members of the Order of Merit gather periodically for lunches at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, which are attended by the Queen as well as Prince Philip and Prince Charles, who are both OMs.

Hockney joins the playwright Tom Stoppard, former Speaker Lady Boothroyd and Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the worldwide web, who are already members of the order of merit.

Other OMs include the wildlife broadcaster Sir David Attenborough, the financier Lord Rothschild and Lord Rees of Ludlow, the astronomer royal. Appointments to the order, which was founded in 1902 by King Edward VII, are in the sovereign's personal gift and ministerial advice is not required. Non-Commonwealth honorary members have included Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa.

Buckingham Palace announced that John Howard, the former prime minister of Australia, has also been appointed to the order.

Hockney is back living in Yorkshire, but produced some of the most celebrated images of his career in Los Angeles, including what became known as his swimming pool paintings, the most famous of which was A Bigger Splash in 1967.

Other famous works include Mr And Mrs Clark And Percy – a picture of the fashion designer Ossie Clark, his then wife Celia Birtwell and their cat. In the 1970s Hockney was commissioned by the Glyndebourne Festival and Metropolitan Opera in New York to design the backdrops for operatic productions.

Hockney is preparing a major new exhibition at the Royal Academy in London called A Bigger Picture, which will feature his vast new landscape paintings and an innovative moving image collage, which harnesses multiple cameras to capture views of the countryside around his home in Bridlington, East Yorkshire, where he went to live in 2005. It was this project that Hockney gave as a reason for not being able to paint the Queen.

"When I was asked I told them I was very busy painting England actually. Her country," he told the BBC last year. He said she would be a "terrific subject" but "I generally only paint people I know, I'm not a flatterer really."

As well as producing huge canvases, Hockney has produced a series of images drawn using a painting programme on iPads and iPhones. Hockney has said recently that he has more energy now than he did a decade ago.

"I draw flowers every day on my iPhone, and send them to my friends, so they get fresh flowers every morning," he told Martin Gayford, an art historian who last year published a book of conversations with Hockney called A Bigger Message. "And my flowers last. Not only can I draw them as if in a little sketchbook, I can also then send them to 15 or 20 people, who then get them that morning when they wake up."

Gayford said Hockney would have no problem "gelling" with other members, calling him a brilliant conversationalist "incapable of saying anything boring".

"He has always had an inner certainty that gives him the confidence to challenge orthodoxy about anything he feels strongly about," he said. "That has shown through in his career, including in his decision to take on landscape painting. People said landscape painting was over and he took that as a challenge, as can be seen in this new exhibition."

The order of merit

Duke of Edinburgh 1968

William Owen Chadwick Religious scholar 1983

Andrew Huxley Physiologist 1983

Frederick Sanger Biochemist 1986

Margaret Thatcher Politician 1990

Michael Atiyah Mathematician 1992

Nelson Mandela Politician 1995 (honorary member)

Aaron Klug Chemist 1995

Norman Foster Architect 1997

Anthony Caro Sculptor 2000

Roger Penrose Mathematical physicist 2000

Tom Stoppard Playwright 2000

Prince Charles 2002

Robert May Scientist 2002

Jacob Rothschild Banker 2002

David Attenborough Broadcaster 2005

Betty Boothroyd politician 2005

Michael Howard Military historian 2005

Robert Eames Former Anglican primate 2007

Tim Berners-Lee Internet pioneer 2007

Martin Rees Astro–physicist 2007

Jean Chrétien Former Canadian PM 2009

Neil MacGregor Museum director 2010

David Hockney Artist 2012

John Howard former Australian PM 2012


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November 11 2011

And what do you paint? Queen meets Tracey Emin in Margate

Two pillars of the establishment come face to face when monarch visits Turner Contemporary gallery in artist's home town

Tracey Emin was soberly dressed, head to toe in dark grey Vivienne Westwood. The Queen had also made an effort. She wore a pink and white basket weave dress and coat by Stewart Parvin. And together they met on a cold, grey Friday in Margate – two pillars of the establishment albeit of a very different kind.

The occasion was a visit by the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh to the Turner Contemporary, the David Chipperfield-designed gallery which opened in April. A royal seal of approval, perhaps, for the glut of galleries which have opened over the past decade from Gateshead (where she has also been) to Wakefield and Nottingham to Colchester.

Emin – Margate-born and bred, bad girl turned near national treasure – was introduced to the royal couple in front of JMW Turner's 1815 masterpiece, Crossing the Brook, part of an eclectic show celebrating youth culture.

It is not clear if the Queen – who has quite a large collection herself, of course – was entirely aware of Emin's work, apparently asking if she exhibited internationally as well as Margate.

But they seemed to get on extremely well. Afterwards Emin said the Queen had been very relaxed and funny. "She knew that I'd grown up here and I told her about my misspent youth and I said I was trying to make up for it now," she said.

They also talked about a show Emin is taking part in next year, in which there will also be works by Turner and Rodin.

"They were both quite enthusiastic and surprised that I was having an exhibition in the whole space and I explained I was sharing it with Turner. I didn't say it was the erotic works of Turner.

"It was brilliant, very nice. She had a big, beaming smile so I immediately felt really relaxed."

Prince Philip also passed on some advice to the Tate, suggesting the gallery should put some other artists in the Clore galleries other than Turner.

The couple seemed to enjoy their scoot around the show, with the Queen asking what one work by the New York collective Bernadette Corporation was. In truth, it's hard to tell – a banner wrapped around a small scaffold. It is in fact a damning critique of the sexualisation of young women in advertising.

After viewing the exhibition it was downstairs for a lunch of locally caught halibut and local beer.

This was a big day for Turner Contemporary, which is playing its part in helping Margate to claw its way up from the doldrums.

Since it opened in April, more than 300,000 people have visited – a remarkable figure since the gallery had been expecting just over 156,000 for the entire year.

Victoria Pomery, the gallery's director, said: "It has been hugely successful, beyond my wildest expectations.

"It has been amazing and goes to show that in a time of economic downturn and recession, the arts are more important than ever, they really are. There's a real demand and appetite for what the arts can bring to any of us."

Margate itself is a town on the up, with 35 businesses opening in the old town in the past year, including a cupcake shop, also visited by the royal couple.

"There is still lots of change to happen, we'd all agree on that," said Pomery. "There's a real impact being felt as a result of Turner Contemporary. But the building will only work with fantastic art and people in it."

Emin recalled growing up in a town that felt "incredibly glamorous" – packed with tourists, beauty competitions, variety acts. "It felt like it was sunny all the time."

And then there was the downturn.

"I still think there should be an inquiry into what happened to Margate. How did it happen? Who was responsible? It's good that things are getting better but how did this happen to Margate?

"The thing is, wherever art goes, commerce follows. I just didn't expect the Queen to follow it."

Emin, who said her 17-year-old self did not think she would be alive at this age let alone meeting the Queen, was accompanied by her mum Pam.

"I'm very proud of her," said Emin senior. "It's such an honour that she's meeting the Queen."

"I came to Margate over 40 years ago and it was thriving and busy and suddenly everything became different. This gallery is making a difference, it's lovely here at the weekends."


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October 11 2011

Diamond jubilee £5 coin launched – yours for £12.99

Souvenir issued by Royal Mint features Queen as she is today on one side and her younger self on the reverse

A £5 coin to mark the Queen's diamond jubilee next year, featuring the monarch's head on both sides, has been issued by the Royal Mint – priced at £12.99.

The mint explained the cost by saying that it was a commemorative rather than a circulating coin, with a value determined by the quality of its finish rather than its face value. There is still expected to be a significant worldwide demand.

One side of the coin shows the Queen's head as it first appeared on the currency when she was crowned in 1953 – youthful, garlanded with a laurel crown and accompanied by the Latin motto: Dirige Deus Gressus Meos (May God Guide My Steps).

The other side features a contemporary portrait of the ageing monarch, somewhat more jowly, dressed in garter robes.

The mint said the coin is an "ideal choice for people wishing to mark the jubilee … a permanent and treasured souvenir that can be passed from one generation to the next".

The Queen's head on UK coinage has gone through four redesigns during her lengthy reign. Her portrait as a 27 year-old in 1953, designed by Mary Gillick, appeared on pre-decimal coins such as farthings, shillings and florins. It was updated by Arnold Machin in 1968, then again in 1985, by Raphael Maklouf. Ian Rank-Broadley redesigned the portrait in 1998 and he has also designed the latest coin.

The main focus of the diamond jubilee will come at the end of next May with a flotilla of boats proceeding down the Thames in London, with the Queen in the lead barge, on the Sunday of a bank holiday weekend.


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June 08 2011

Queen Elizabeth II by Cecil Beaton – in pictures

The V&A is staging an exhibition for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee of previously unseen pictures alongside formal portraits



Unseen Cecil Beaton pictures of Queen to go on show at V&A

Major photography exhibition will mark Queen's Diamond Jubilee

Previously unseen pictures of a young and relaxed Princess Elizabeth by Cecil Beaton, one of the most celebrated of photographers, will join his formal portraits of the Queen at a major exhibition at the Victorian and Albert museum to mark the Diamond Jubilee, it was announced yesterday.

The show at the V&A draws on more than 18,000 photographs, negatives and transparencies in the V&A's collection of Beaton's royal portraits. Alongside nearly 30 years of the Queen's portraits, there will be excerpts from Beaton's diaries and letters.

Given the nature of Beaton's commission, his work was up among the most widely viewed and published photographs of the 20th century, many of the portraits will be quite familiar.

But the show's curator, Susanna Brown, said there would be items not previously exhibited, including informal snapshots of the Queen preparing for her coronation day in 1953, and the golden coach returning to the palace afterward. There will also be unexhibited shots of the wartime bomb damage to Buckingham Palace during the blitz – it was hit nine times.

Beaton prepared intensively and nervously for each sitting in an attempt to get the perfect portrait. "I think they got on very well," said Brown. "I think she [the Queen] understood that he was a real asset to them: he could really help, in terms of their public profile, and his images were circulated so widely. We tend to forget that these images were made for PR purposes; they went all over the world."

Beaton took photographs of Elizabeth at various stages of her reign: as a 16-year-old on becoming colonel-in-chief of the Grenadier Guards, at her coronation, and after the birth of each of her four children.

One unanswered question is why the final Beaton portrait of the Queen is a formal setting, in the palace's Blue Drawing Room, from 1968: why none from the 1970s, when the photographer was very much continuing to work, up until his death, in 1980?

A version of the V&A show will open at the McManus museum and gallery, in Dundee, before opening in London on 8 February; it will then tour Leeds, Norwich and Newcastle.


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May 24 2011

Obama's stay at the palace: lunch, then a tour of the priceless art collection

How to entertain a US president who comes to stay? The Queen can go one better than getting out the old photo albums

During her long reign, the Queen has met a quarter of all American presidents, but few have stayed at Buckingham Palace for a sleepover. But Barack Obama – a man almost young enough to be her grandson, younger than three of her four children – was a guest on Monday night with his wife Michelle. Generations and continents apart in experience and age, they seemed to be getting on like a house on fire.

But how to entertain the nice, polite young man after lunch? Some of us might get out the family album, or the holiday souvenirs. The Queen can go several steps better: laid out in her private gallery in the palace, under the Rubens paintings, for the presidential perusal were notes by George Washington and George III, a letter by Abraham Lincoln and two copies of the original edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Not forgetting a 19th-century volume of John James Audubon's Birds of America, in double elephant-sized folio, one of the most valuable books of the world: if you want to buy it, the going rate at auction is $11m.

Nothing quite like that in the exchange of gifts: the Queen gave the Obamas leather-bound facsimiles of the presidential letters in the royal collection, with an antique gold-and-red coral brooch for the first lady. In return Obama, evidently learning from the slight hiatus over his trifling gift of DVDs to Gordon Brown, gave the Queen a collection of photographs from her parents' visit to Washington in 1939 – the first to the US by a reigning British monarch. The duke received a gift perhaps qualifying for the response "you shouldn't have": horseshoes, bits and shanks of equipage from the US champion carriage driving team, engraved with the presidential seal. It was probably the thought that counted.

The royal party, fresh from lunch, were clearly in relaxed mood as they entered the gallery, the Queen pointing out the exhibits as an 85-year-old might show off her begonias. "Jane – you explain," she instructed Lady Jane Roberts, the librarian at Windsor Castle, who had selected the exhibits.

Get any awkwardness out of the way first: a letter from Washington about the surrender of British troops at Yorktown at the end of the war of independence. Beside it, George III's neatly written note, agonising over the loss of the colonies: "America is lost! Must we fall beneath the blow?" Spirits evidently rising, he concluded perceptively: "A people spread over an immense part of fertile land, industrious because free and rich because industrious, presently becomes a market for the manufactures and commerce of the mother country." He didn't add, as one of his negotiators of the peace treaty did, "And everyone of 'em speaking English."

"That was just a temporary blip in the relationship," said Obama, looking down genially.

They made their way slowly round the gallery, the Queen murmuring, "Interesting" at Lady Jane's commentary, while examining her fingernails. The duke cheerfully turned the pages of the Audubon to show Mrs Obama, ruffling them as if they were a paperback.

There was some chuckling at a letter, written from Washington during the 1939 tour, by the Queen's mother to "My Darling Lilibet" describing a picnic luncheon: "All our food on one plate – a little salmon, some turkey, some ham, lettuce, beans and HOT DOGS too!"

It was a pity they scarcely had time to glance at the handwritten letter Abraham Lincoln wrote to Queen Victoria in February 1862, in the middle of the civil war, after learning of the death of Prince Albert. He sympathised with his "Great and Good Friend" over the overwhelming affliction that had befallen her: "I would fain have your Majesty apprehend … that real sympathy can exist, as real truthfulness can be practised, in the intercourse of nations..." Three years later Victoria was writing to Lincoln's widow, following the president's assassination: "Though a stranger to you, I cannot remain silent when so terrible a calamity has fallen upon you," and Mary Lincoln was writing back in anguish about "the intense grief I now endure."

Protocol directs that after a reciprocal banquet at the US ambassador's residence, the Queen and duke will bid farewell to their guests, who then return to the palace for a further night. Perhaps they will leave the cornflakes out for the morning, with a note for the Obamas to help themselves.


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The oiled west: Obama to see Americana from Queen's art collection

The president will be shown artistic treasures that reveal British enthusiasm for all things American down the years

It is a custom of state visits for the Queen to show the visiting dignitary a specially chosen selection of highlights that may be of interest to them and their nation from her extraordinary collection of paintings, sculpture, drawings, photographs and objets d'art.

The Royal Collection is one of the last surviving examples of monarchical collections, which in most countries have long since become part of public museums; from a historical point of view, it is the finest collection in the world, with treasures such as Leonardo da Vinci's anatomical drawings and Holbein's portrait studies.

Barack Obama will get a personal view of it this afternoon in the picture gallery of Buckingham Palace, where he will see paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer and Titian. Among these masterpieces, he will see a special "American" display.

This may seem unpromising – after all, the monarchy lost America back in the 18th century – but in fact the Royal Collection has a fascinating haul of Americana in among its Leonardos.

Indeed, this art collection tells of British enthusiasm down the centuries for all things American, offering plenty of material for a presidential private view.

Admittedly, one of the greatest royal collectors was George III, whose reign was marked by British defeat in the revolutionary war and loss of the British empire's richest colony. And it is true that the collection includes a Tarleton cap, a piece of military headgear named after Banastre Tarleton, who was one of the most hated and feared British officers in the attempt to suppress the revolution. Yet the Queen's collection reveals that subsequent monarchs soon fell in love with the young republic.

And that really doesn't seem too strong a description of Queen Victoria's passion for the wild west. One of the most evocative American images in the Royal Collection is a photograph of Buffalo Bill that she purchased as a souvenir of her favourite frontiersman.

It shows the famous hunter and scout posing with his rifle, long hair and cowboy hat, and wearing a leather tunic in the style of a Plains Indian. It was taken in 1892, the year the Queen enjoyed a special performance of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show at Windsor Castle. This was the second time she had seen the show. She praised Buffalo Bill, real name William Cody, as "a splendid man, handsome and gentlemanlike".

She also commissioned Sir Edwin Landseer's 1839 painting Isaac van Amburgh and his Animals, a richly oiled canvas of a man lying calmly among wild beasts, after she watched this American lion tamer perform on seven occasions that year. Queen Victoria had a special relationship with American tough guys, it would seem from her art collecting.

You can chart the cultural history of two continents from this venerable art collection. The Royal Collection dates back to the age when, in European eyes, much of North America was untamed wilderness. Some of the oldest images of America that it holds depict exotic flora and fauna of the new world, such as Mark Catesby's picture of an American bison, looking like a survivor of the Ice Age, dating from the early 18th century.

America in the early 1700s was above all seen as a natural sphere of study, a new world to catalogue, in the eyes of the Royal Collection, which also includes Catesby's studies of a skunk and a bald eagle. But by the 1770s, America was producing its own artists. George III appointed the Pennsylvania-born Benjamin West as history painter to the court; West's 1771 masterpiece The Death of General Wolfe is one of the highlights of the Royal Collection. He in turn persuaded the King to make use of a fellow American, John Singleton Copley, to portray the Hanoverian princesses.

So the years that saw the American Revolution also saw American artists working directly for the monarchy, for the simple reason that an art scene did not yet exist as such in Boston or New York. Soon, though, American culture would become proudly self-conscious, and the flora and fauna once studied as objects of curiosity by Europeans would be rediscovered by American romantics as the essence of a new nationhood.

Another photograph collected by Queen Victoria is a portrait of the poet Henry Longfellow, seen in his day as the great national American bard, by Julia Margaret Cameron. Longfellow's 19th-century epic poem Hiawatha draws on Native American myth to imagine the continent in its innocence, as a place where humanity lived in accord with nature. Queen Victoria apparently loved Hiawatha as well as Buffalo Bil, if her purchase of this photo is anything to go by.

In the Royal Collection, there is plenty to fascinate American eyes. It offers a romantic vision of the new world, cultivated by rulers and former rulers who dreamed of it from afar.


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April 21 2011

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