Sunday, January 29, 2012

Artists who refused Honours

In the UK, both the Government and the Monarch confer honours on various people for the contribution they've made to society.  David Hockney, for example, has very recently been created an OM by the Queen which is extremely prestigious as it's a personal award by the monarch, there are only 24 at any one time and it's one of the highest honours in the land.

If an honour is proposed, you are advised in advance and then have to keep quiet until it's announced.  However, you don't have to accept an honour and some people do refuse.  Up until now some people have chosen to indicate they've refused an honour while others have just kept their heads down and avoided all the fuss.

I came across a very interesting story this week which appears to indicate that there are some very illustrious names amongst those artists who have refused an honour.  Below is the table I've compiled of just the visual artists.

Name of artistHonourYear
Francis BaconCBE1960
Lucian FreudCBE1977
LS LowryOBE1955
LS LowryCBE1961
LS LowryKnight1968
LS LowryCH1972
LS LowryCH1976
Henry MooreKnight1951
Source: The Telegraph - People who snubbed honours from the Queen: in full

Explanation of Honours in order of Hierarchy 
(Explanations come from the The British Monarchy Website and Direct gov: types of honours and awards):
  • Order of Merit (OM): This is a relatively modern Order, and is one of the most coveted of British distinctions. The Order is restricted to 24 members (as well as additional foreign recipients). As with the Royal Victorian Order, the Order of Merit is in the sole gift of the Sovereign but carries no rank apart from the initials OM after the name.
  • Companion of Honour: (a maximum of 65 at any one time) This is awarded for a pre-eminent and sustained contribution in the arts, science, medicine or government.
  • Knight or Dame: This rewards a pre-eminent contribution in any field of activity (usually, but not exclusively, at a national level), or in a capacity which is recognised by peer groups as inspirational and nationally significant, and demonstrating sustained commitment. Awarded for:
    • a pre-eminent and sustained contribution
    • being recognised by peer groups as inspirational
    • the impact of the contribution being felt at a national level
  • CBE: This rewards a prominent national role of a lesser degree, a conspicuous leading role in regional affairs through achievement or service to the community or a highly distinguished, innovative contribution in his or her area of activity.  Awarded for:
    • an achievement or service in a leading role at a regional level
    • making a highly distinguished, innovative contribution with a wide impact
When you actually read the list of creative people who have refused honours (eg  Roald Dahl, Graham Greene, Aldous HuxleyCS LewisEleonor FarjeonAlfred Hitchcock, JB Priestley, Paul Schofield, Evelyn Waughyou actually begin to wonder which list creative people would prefer to be part of!

Certainly not one which comes from a system which makes a knight out of banker Fred Goodwin (who hopefully will lose his knighthood very soon!)

However, there are those that say turning down an honour is a strategy for helping you to get a better one later.  The Telegraph calls this game "posh poker" and asserts that it's a game which is only open to the creative types who know that if they continue to stick around another offer will come their way in due course.
The late Lucian Freud – a keen racing man, incidentally – played a blinder. He turned down a CBE in 1977, only to scoop a Companionship of Honour in 1983 and the Order of Merit in 1993. Painters, generally, are pretty good at posh poker. David Hockney turned down a knighthood in 1990, only to get the Companionship of Honour in 1997 and the Order of Merit earlier this month.
Some have also accepted an honour at a later date.  Henry Moore is an interesting example.  He turned down a knighthood in 1951 and yet he was not averse to accepting honours and prizes per se.  Perhaps he didn't mind an honour for a specific piece or type of work?
From 1949 to 1956 he was a Trustee of the Tate Gallery, London, and of the National Gallery, London from 1955 to 1974. He took International Sculpture Prizes at the 24th Venice Biennale in 1948 and at the 2nd Sao Paulo Biennale in 1953. The award of Companion of Honour in 1955, the Order of Merit in 1963, and the Erasmus Prize in 1968 are just a few from a list of over seventy accolades he gained from over a dozen countries.
It is noticeable that most of those who have refused government honours have accepted numerous prizes from their peers for their work. Maybe it's a case of creative artists only caring what their peers have to say about their work rather than society at large and the government in particular?

Cover of the book "L. S. Lowry, a biography" by Shelly Rohde
There is one artist who really did mean it though - and why am I not surprised he's a northerner from my part of the world!  As The Telegraph points out in The honours list refuseniks who want it both ways
The master of the I’m Not Playing routine was the painter L S Lowry. He holds the record for honours turned down. He refused the OBE in 1955, the CBE in 1961, a knighthood in 1968, and the Companionship of Honour twice, in 1972 and 1976. Born plain Laurence Stephen Lowry in Lancashire in 1887, he died plain Laurence Stephen Lowry in Derbyshire in 1976.
Jonathan Jones in The Guardian (Don't call me Sir: why do artists snub royal honours?) points out that the refusal of honours may have an alternative explanation
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? 
Jonathan suggests that maybe it's time for a different sort of gong - one that is only for creative people and which has no connection whatsoever with the government and establishment elites.  Maybe he's got a point.

However I can't think how it would be awarded without the establishment of yet another elite!

PS  Guess who forgot all about her tax return which has to be submitted online by 31 January otherwise I collect a £100 fine!  "Who's made a mark this week" will return when the tax return is completed.  For others in the same boat take a look at Gayle Mason's post Self Assessment - Filing Deadline and Penalty Change


  1. Hi Katherine, I am also late starting my tax return and was just about to but had to read your post instead! I'm also very interested in this story and wanted to say that you're blog is SO interesting and informative! It's incredible! I've been managing with the Internet only on my phone the last couple of months, but now we're back online I can really take advantage of your posts! Thanks! And now, the Inland Revenue beckons...

  2. Katherine – I'm shocked! I did my tax return ages ago and I thought you were so much more organised than me. Very interesting reading about those that turned their honours down.

  3. What can I say?

    I've got my accounts set up and a file with the critical bits of paper - I just hadn't got around to filling in the form - at which point you realise which are the critical bits of paper you don't have to hand!


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