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McQueen and Mail

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Will Gompertz | 16:07 UK time, Thursday, 18 March 2010

"I just want to do the right thing," the artist Steve McQueen announces. "Help me to do the right thing."

He is talking about his dispute with the Royal Mail which is refusing to make stamps out of his artwork Queen and Country. It's an argument which has been going on a long time and which is clearly beginning to weary McQueen. "I'm just an artist - a geezer. What can I do?"

Queen and Country exhibition

Steve McQueen is also a big man. But today, tired after a 5am start, he had the air of a prize-fighter who has taken on one bout too many: deflated; defeated.

Queen and Country exhibitionWhen he came up with the idea of creating a stamp for every UK soldier killed in the Iraq war, he thought it was the answer to what had, until that moment, been a frustrating experience.

Named as the official artist for the Iraq war, he flew home after only six days of inactivity in Basra and was never allowed to return. Stumped as to how one could possibly be a long-distance war artist, he got on with the minutiae of life.

He says he was sticking a stamp on to an envelope containing his tax return when he noticed it carried a portrait of Vincent Van Gogh. Inspiration struck.

Queen and Country consists of 160 photographic portraits that have been made into facsimile sheets of stamps. Each sheet contains a single picture of a British serviceman or woman who has been killed in the war in Iraq.

Each image has been supplied by the family of the dead serviceman or woman. McQueen describes the project as collaboration with them. Nearly all the families who have experienced loss have agreed to participate.

The Royal Mail has not; it is adamant that it will not turn McQueen's artwork into a special edition of stamps. The artist points out that you either have to be dead or a member of the Royal Family to have your image on a British stamp.

Queen and Country exhibition"What," he asks, "could be more appropriate than commemorating those that have died serving their country?"

The Royal Mail has three reasons for refusing to publish. The first is that it would set a precedent. The second is that it is too soon. And the third that it might upset people to see a mark made by the Post Office frank over an image of a soldier's face. Poppycock - or words to that effect - is McQueen's response.

The work opens today at the National Portrait Gallery, the final leg of a national tour that has been supported by the Art Fund, which is also running a petition to give to the Royal Mail.

In four months' time, the artwork will go into storage at the Imperial War Museum. McQueen hopes that, before then, this work of art will get the stamp of approval.


  • Comment number 1.

    Excellent. Public art with a purpose. I've just signed the Art Fund petition, which already has nearly 22,000 signatures. I don't know if the arts editor is able to post a link to it anywhere, but it's easily findable...

  • Comment number 2.

    You can't ask the dead if they approve. We like to memorialize those who die for our sins. Societies tend to make soldiers "heroes" when they are simply casualities. Wars do not have the purposes or grand confrontations of years before but now have an underlying current of business interest, in this case oil. Maybe a solid black stamp would be more appropriate or a mirror.

  • Comment number 3.

    Excellent idea. I fully support the idea of putting fallen soldiers, sailors and airmen/women on stamps

  • Comment number 4.

    What a fantastic and inspirational idea. The Royal Mail could even charge an extra penny per stamp and give the proceeds to the relevant army charities who look after injured servicemen.

    As for setting a precident - having stamps made of servicemen who have given their lives in active duty with some of the proceeds going towards their injured colleagues is not a bad precident at all I think.

    This should be more prominent on the site as I am sure it would recieve better feedback.

  • Comment number 5.

    Fantastic idea. I propose making a complete mockery of the postal system as this man wants - and put Wallace and Gromit on a set of stamps too.

  • Comment number 6.

    No, no, no... a stamp collection was never a good idea. I've no objection to a generic memorial of some kind, but a line has to be drawn with respect to this kind of fetishising of the dead - the Wooton Bassett performance (and it is a performance) is bad enough.

    The commemeration of individuals is best left to the people who knew them. Royal Mail is also right to point out that the wars in which these people have died in are still current conflicts: conflicts that are divisive and hotly debated.

    The individuals concerned died doing their job. We can question if they should have been where they were doing their job or whether they were adequately provisioned when they were doing their job, but at the end of the day, they were paid by the state to do a job where death is very much an occupational hazard, and unfortunately, they've paid that price. The best the rest of us can do is to reflect soberly and dispassionately whether that price was one well-paid or not. Mythologising individuals and recasting them heroes in attempt to feel part of - or even create - a sense national loss, or to assuage our guilt, is not the way to go.

  • Comment number 7.

    To me it immediately sounds like a splendid idea, until you actually think it through some, which it seems is what the Royal Mail have done. Their objections are reasonable. If the website shows examples of what is intended I'm sorry to say it looks cheap. It brings to mind appeals for missing persons on milk cartons - well there's a reason for doing that but this is totally different, it requires more sensitivity. Think again, Mr. McQueen.


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