There’s a long tradition in Britain of appointing an official war artist when troops are in combat. The choices are often adventurous and risky. The decidedly left-wing John Keane was the official war artist for the first Gulf War and Peter Howson, no shrinking violet, went to Bosnia.
But in the Financial Times there was an incredibly moving interview with Steve McQueen, who was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum to create an artwork in response to the war in Iraq. He went on a six-day tour to Basra which proved “a huge waste of time”. “They led me by the hand. I couldn’t investigate anything.”
But McQueen returned to home and safety and had what Peter Aspden calls an “epiphany” in the FT. “I was doing my taxes, and I suddently had this idea of a stamp. The only people who are allowed to be portrayed on stamps are dead people, or the royal family. And I thought this would be a better way to honour the dead than making some kind of three-dimensional object in London which no one would come and see.”
So he set out to make a series of stamps with portraits of all the 110 British people who had died in the war to that point. The project fell on deaf ears at both the Ministry of Defence and the Royal Mail. But the families of the fallen were hugely supportive. He had 98 positive responses and only four no’s (eight couldn’t be contacted). So McQueen created his artwork on his own. They are on display until July at Manchester’s Central Library.
If they were ever issued for real, the stamps would “enter the bloodstream of the country. Something that would hit you over your toast and marmalade. All I am saying is: ‘Look at this.’ It’s very simple.”