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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. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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 © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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