McQueen and Mail
"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?"
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.
When 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.
"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.