‘Sud­denly, from feel­ing re­ally ex­hausted and re­ally alone and very out­side so­ci­ety, an out­cast, or a witch, or what­ever you want to say, when I’m paint­ing I’m so ex­cited and so full of life that I don’t feel alone.’

Tracey Emin has cel­e­brated en­ter­ing her 50s with new ex­hi­bi­tions, fresh work and a jew­ellery col­lab­o­ra­tion with her old friend Stephen Web­ster. By Louise Car­pen­ter. Pho­to­graphs by Rick Pushinsky

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - NEWS -

Tracey Emin re­mem­bers a time, about 15 years ago, at the point when her li fe was start­ing to change – ex t reme wealth from in­ter­na­tional shows and col­lec­tors all over t he world g iv ing her a rock-st a r fa me be­yond t he art world – that she told her then boyfriend what re­ally pushed her on was ‘a mad de­sire to be more hu­man, to be more nor­mal’.

‘Trace, you’re go­ing to have to face facts,’ he told her, ‘you and nor­mal parted a long, long time ago.’

‘He was right,’ Emin says to­day. ‘It’s not go­ing to hap­pen. I have a difer­ent way of look­ing at things, a difer­ent way of liv­ing, a difer­ent at­ti­tude.

‘I don’t do what many other peo­ple be­lieve in and have to do to be part of what is con­sid­ered so­ci­ety. I live out­side so­ci­ety and I en­joy that, but I should have been en­joy­ing it a long time ago… But maybe I didn’t have the in­de­pen­dence or conf­dence to know that I could.’

We are sit­ting in Emin’s four-storey stu­dio space in Spi­tal­fields in east Lon­don, par t of t he vast Tracey Emin HQ, which she com­mis­sioned from scratch more than six years ago. She has just col­lab­o­rated with an old friend, the jew­eller Stephen Web­ster, to pro­duce a 35-piece col­lec­tion of ex­quis­ite jew­ellery, called I Prom­ise to Love You, which is based on her art. Some of her fa­mous neon signs ( With You I Breathe, I Prom­ise to Love You, More Pas­sion) have been turned into bracelets, neck­laces and ear cuffs in 18ct gold, and her small an­i­mal sketches of birds, cats, toads, hares, owls and bad­gers have been trans­formed into del­i­cate gold charms or tiny pen­dants. There are cuff­links and sig net rings and gypsy bracelets, all ref­er­enc­ing her child­hood in Mar­gate and the gypsy roots that were un­cov­ered in Who Do You Think You Are? in 2011 (when it was re­vealed that Emin de­scended from a large Ro­many clan in War­wick­shire). ‘All of it is the an­tithe­sis of what peo­ple con­sider to be suc­cess­ful jew­ellery now,’ she says of the pieces. ‘It’s tra­di­tional, it’s un­der­stated, it’s sweet, del­i­cate – so I’m re­ally pleased with it.’

Around us in the stu­dio there are fig­u­ra­tive paint­ings ev­ery­where: about 17 propped up against the walls; many more in the stacks. Next to the sofa, where we drink tea, there is a white model of a sin­gle-storey build­ing, the gallery in Brus­sels that will house a show in May 2017. She uses the model to shrink down each of the paint­ings planned for the show and work out how they sit with one an­other. ‘Like a doll’s house. It gives you an idea if there is too much work, or not enough,’ she ex­plains.

Over on an­other ta­ble by the door is a large sculp­ture of two naked bod­ies that is al­most fnished and much big­ger in scale than the tiny bronze works she showed in 2014 at White Cube as part of The Last Great Ad­ven­ture Is You. She has to send it of to the foundry this af­ter­noon to be cast. ‘I need to get work­ing on the next one.’

Th­ese days be­ing Tracey Emin is a huge com­mer­cial en­ter­prise. She has col­lec­tors all over the world. There are ex­hi­bi­tions to or­gan­ise (two in Hong Kong in March and one in New York in May), cat­a­log ues to write, trips to make to Amer­ica, China and Aus­tralia. There are book-lined ofces up­stairs for the team who work on her cat­a­logues, her books and her di­ary. (When we go up there later, there are sketches and draw­ings ev­ery­where. Among them, a young woman is sit­ting on a beanbag em­broi­der­ing one of Emin’s big tex­tile pieces.)

It’s a phe­nom­e­nally lu­cra­tive busi­ness, a long way from the im­pov­er­ished con­di­tions in which Emin cre­ated her embroidere­d tent Ever ybody I Have Ever Slept with 1963-1995 and My Bed, which recre­ated the blood, the se­men stains, the con­doms and dirty knick­ers of the artist’s real bed, and was short­listed for the Turner Prize in 1999. Charles Saatchi bought Ev­ery­body I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995, but it was de­stroyed by a fre at the Mo­mart stor­age ware­house in east Lon­don in 2004.

My Bed re­cently sold for more than £2 mil­lion to Count Chris­tian Duer­ck­heim, who has loaned it to Tate Bri­tain for 10 years.

Emin is not apolo­getic about her wealth. When once asked, ‘How do you take to the sug­ges­tion that any­one could have put an un­made bed in an art gallery for a mil­lion pounds?’, she sniped, ‘They didn’t though, did they? I did.’ Still, she re­calls in her mem­oir Strange­land (pub­lished in 2005) that just be­fore she be­gan work­ing with the White Cube gal­lerist Jay Jo­pling in 1993, she had thought, ‘My life was too im­por­tant to chop it into lit­tle pieces in the at­tempt to make art. That was why I had al­ways failed.’

More than 20 years have passed, and her suc­cess is built on her abil­ity to sac­ri­fce her life for her art, the way she con­stantly ex­plores her past – and present – and all the deep feel­ings that the rest of us usu­ally keep pri­vate. She re­mem­bers think­ing ‘prob­a­bly around 1992, “If I don’t make art, if I don’t suc­ceed in this I will prob­a­bly die. Be­cause I don’t have any other op­tions.” ’

What was once shock­ing, or at least chal­leng­ing, about Emin – the sex, the ex­plicit sex­ual fan­ta­sises (de­tailed in Strange­land ), the abor­tions, the foul­mouthed, drunken ap­pear­ances on TV – now feels less so. It is as if all that en­ergy has been re-routed. Or per­haps it re­mains the same but we’ve watched Emin, through her ca­reer, grow up in front of us and be­come a mem­ber of the es­tab­lish­ment? She’s 52 now and her art has de­vel­oped into some­thing with a last­ing ap­peal. She still hones her skill and pushes her­self for­ward. ‘Peo­ple are open to it,’ she says of the way her art is re­ceived th­ese days. ‘Twenty years ago they weren’t ready for hon­esty. It wasn’t part of the zeit­geist, but I think it’s a younger gen­er­a­tion of peo­ple who un­der­stand that to ex­pe­ri­ence life you have to be hon­est, be­cause if you lie you are not ex­pe­ri­enc­ing any­thing, are you? Ex­cept de­ceit.’

Un­like so many fa­mous peo­ple, Emin looks ex­actly like she pho­to­graphs: the lop­sided smile; the eyes hard and chal­leng­ing. Even in the M&S ad in 2013, in which the most ac­com­plished women of their fields, in­clud­ing He­len Mir­ren, were pho­tographed by An­nie Lei­bovitz, she looked fu­ri­ous and as if she was about to slap some­one. (She said af­ter­wards that she did smile in some of the un­used pic­tures.)

To­day she is wear­ing t rain­ers, and legg ings un­der a skirt. It is a low-key look but she pulls back her hair to show me her earrings, which she bought f rom Web­ster. ‘ Like some­thing f rom t he 18t h cen­tur y,’ she says of them. She also shows me a fab­u­lous Web­ster stone on her fnger, which she com­mis­sioned and which re­ally is a ver y g rand rock. It was Emin’s love of Web­ster’s tra­di­tional jew­ellery, rather than the gothic and rock-in­spired pieces for which he is bet­ter known, that led to their col­lab­o­ra­tion.

Her un­mis­tak­able face is why she gets recog­nised when she walks around Shored­itch (she has a listed house around the cor­ner), by art fans, by tourists, by ev­ery­body re­ally. Stephen Web­ster tells me later, ‘Walk­ing around with Tracey, it’s like she’s a movie star. She’s a hero to a lot of young women – they are not her col­lec­tors but it’s like she’s their hero. I think it’s be­cause, in her deeply per­sonal way, she deals with things that young women con­nect to, she has cov­ered that ground. [Her art] is not ab­stract; it’s a per­sonal story.’

‘Walk­ing around with Tracey, it’s like she’s a movie star. She’s a hero to a lot of young women’ ‘I don’t do what many other peo­ple be­lieve in and have to do to be part of what is con­sid­ered so­ci­ety. I en­joy that’

Mar­gate pretty much comes to a stand­still th­ese days when she drives back to see her mother. ‘She’s very proud of me. All my fam­ily are.’ There’s a pho­to­graph of them both on the wall. ‘She looks lovely there, doesn’t she?’ Emin says.

Emin and Web­ster, who hails from Gravesend in Kent, were both part of a small club­bing scene that ex­isted in Mar­gate in the late 1970s. They still oc­ca­sion­ally go to a night­club, or dance in her kitchen, to David Bowie and Roxy Mu­sic. Both went to Med­way Col­lege of De­sign; from there, Emin went on to get a frst in fne art at Maid­stone Col­lege of Art, then a mas­ter’s in paint­ing at the Royal Col­lege of Art.

They lost touch, then re-met through a mu­tual friend, Mick Jones, gui­tarist in the Clash. ‘Me and Stephen be­came re­ally good friends,’ Emin says. ‘He loves all my an­i­mal draw­ings, and t hen I de­signed a ring and asked Stephen to make it for me, which he did. And then we came up with this idea of do­ing par t teenage, par t Mar­gate, par t gypsy; this very English col­lec­tion of jew­ellery – all stuf to do with our youth and our child­hood.’

The col­lab­o­ra­tion st a r ted t hree yea r s ago. Web­ster worked from Emin’s draw­ings and, as she says, ‘He just came back with this amaz­ing col­lec­tion.’ He gave her his book of de­signs, and ad­mits that it was nerve-rack­ing. ‘I don’t usu­ally get stage fright,’ he tells me, ‘but it was a lot of work on pa­per, and you want a pos­i­tive read­ing. But she said, “Let’s just see what hap­pens.” For Tracey, it’s prob­a­bly not that of­ten that the work she has in­spired is handed back to her.’

‘Jewellers have asked to work with me [be­fore]’, Emin ex­plains, ‘but they would want some­thing wacky and wild, whereas Stephen knows the jew­ellery I like. I’m pleased with the whole thing. Peo­ple think he’s a very rock ’n’ roll jew­eller, but he’s not. It’s just they don’t know the other side.’

‘This is not an elit­ist col­lec­tion,’ Web­ster ex­plains. ‘It was im­por­tant to her that it wasn’t priced just for her [art] col­lec­tors.’ (Prices start at around £400 for a charm and rise to £19,000.)

Emin has talked openly about the chal­lenge of turn­ing 50, both in terms of how her body has ex­panded, and fnd­ing her­self alone in the world, with­out a man or a fam­ily of her own. ‘When I was younger I had this amaz­ing fgure,’ she says. ‘I was ft, and I think sud­denly you wake up one day and you go, “Oh my God, this has all changed. I think it was life­style, difer­ent things, just age.” ’

You don’t look very fat, I tell her, but she ex­plains t hat she has just re­cov­ered f rom ap­pen­dici­tis, which meant an op­er­a­tion and the loss of about a stone in weight. ‘A good side efect.’ She laughs. Joan Collins, her friend and neigh­bour in the South of France (where she has an­other stu­dio and can work for days on end with­out dis­rup­tion), told her, ‘Be­ing born beau­ti­ful is like be­ing born rich. You get poorer and poorer ev­ery day.’

‘It’s re­ally good, isn’t it,’ Emin says with her of­cen­tre grin. ‘It’s so true.’

Still, Emin looks youth­ful, if not quite like the tiny slip of a thing she was when she be­came fa­mous. ‘I haven’t got a hus­band and I haven’t got chil­dren,’ she says, by way of ex­pla­na­tion. ‘I re­ally think that makes a lot of difer­ence. And I gave up smok­ing 12 years ago. If you are smok­ing cig­a­rettes and if you have a hus­band who isn’t 50-per-cent sup­port­ive, you are go­ing to end up do­ing ev­ery­thing for them.’

She is lonely at times, she says, but reach­ing 50 al­lowed her fnally to ac­cept that the love afair in her life is her vo­ca­tion. ‘With art, if you say to [it], “I re­ally love you and I’m re­ally grate­ful for ev­ery­thing that you’ve done for me, and I re­ally re­spect you and I re­spect ev­ery­thing in my life,” art is never go­ing to let you down. You think it is your call­ing; it comes and picks you up like a cloud. It’s there for you and holds you, and be­cause of that, as I get older I get an ex­tra­or­di­nary amount of faith, and the faith is to keep go­ing be­cause it’s go­ing to be all right.’

She hasn’t had sex for about six years, she tells me, and says she misses it – not so much the sex­ual act it­self but the in­ti­macy. ‘I don’t know if I am celi­bate; I just haven’t had sex for a long time. Ac­tu­ally, if I wanted to go and have sex this af­ter­noon I could. I’m not go­ing to… I’m just say­ing I don’t know how in­ter­ested I am in that – it’s more not hav­ing any­body to warm the bed up with.

‘Last night the heat­ing broke in my house,’ she con­tin­ues. ‘I got up to get a cardi­gan, then I went back to bed and the sheets were cold. I was try­ing to think of the last time I tried to warm up the bed with some­one, but I couldn’t re­mem­ber: it’s so long ago.’

‘With art, if you say to it, “I re­ally love you and I re­spect you”… it is never go­ing to let you down’

‘Jewellers have asked to work with me be­fore, but they would want some­thing wacky and wild. Stephen knows what I like’

I sus­pect that there is a sig­nif­cant part of her that is the op­po­site of her edgy rep­u­ta­tion, that ac­tu­ally she is re­ally rather cosy. When her as­sis­tant ar­rives with some Mar­mite on toast for her, be­cause she has been work­ing since dawn and sud­denly re­alised she felt faint from hunger, she says in a Tele­tub­bies baby voice, ‘Hel­looo, it’s toast time.’ (Emin is very po­lite and not at all high-handed with her staf.)

Not that she is an easy per­son to in­ter­view. The very aspects of char­ac­ter that con­trib­ute to her last­ing ap­peal – her hon­esty, her un­com­pro­mis­ing ap­proach to life, not car­ing what peo­ple think, not to men­tion the ab­so­lute com­mit­ment to hard work and the en­su­ing weight of her achieve­ments (she is one of only two fe­male pro­fes­sors at the Royal Col­lege of Art: ‘That felt pretty good’) – th­ese things also make her, at times, difcult. She snaps and cor­rects and seems to get ir ri­tated by un­ex­pected things, maybe through con­cern at be­ing mis­rep­re­sented, or for the sim­ple fact that she wants to get back to work on the sculp­ture. It is prob­a­bly both of th­ese things.

Emin says that for a long time she has felt judged for the choices she has made, for not be­ing what so­ci­ety con­sid­ers a ‘nor­mal’ woman in­ter­ested in hav­ing chil­dren or a hus­band. She of ten paints through the night, ‘and then [my as­sis­tants] come in [the next day] and I’ve fnished three paint­ings and it’s re­ally ex­cit­ing.

‘Or I’ve moved all the fur­ni­ture around. Or I’ve done some­thing and then sud­denly, from feel­ing re­ally ex­hausted and re­ally alone and very out­side so­ci­ety, an out­cast, or a witch or what­ever you want to say, [when] I’m paint­ing I’m so ex­cited and so full of life that I don’t feel alone. Be­cause I know that if I wasn’t alone and I didn’t have this ex­tra­or­di­nary feel­ing, I wouldn’t be do­ing what I’m do­ing.

‘It’s not for an or­di­nar y per­son, who wants to have two chil­dren and a lov­ing hus­band and a re­ally beau­ti­ful life. If you want that, don’t do what I’m do­ing be­cause it’s never go­ing to work. I’d f—ing hate it if I had some­one call­ing me, say­ing, “Where are you? Why haven’t you come home?” ’

Given there is no sex in Tracey Emin’s life, there is still a lot of it in her fgu­ra­tive work. Am I al­lowed to say they are sex­ual? I ask her. ‘Not all of them.’

Where’s that one com­ing from? I ask, point­ing at the naked fgures on a large can­vas.

She says the paint­ing, like the oth­ers, is com­ing from ‘na­ture’.

‘So if you want to be in na­ture and that’s what you de­sire, you have to un­der­stand that you are na­ture. Do you un­der­stand that?

‘Fields and grass and moun­tains, and wa­ter­falls, lakes and rivers… Right now I would like to be by a wa­ter­fall. I can’t be, but guess where I am? Next to this,’ she says, ges­tur­ing to her body. ‘It’s an an­i­mal, it’s fesh and blood, it’s na­ture, it’s or­ganic. It isn’t man-made, it’s nat­u­ral. If I [want to] make art for me, which is close to ev­ery­thing, then I am go­ing to use the na­ture within in my work, which is the fesh and body, the soul, the mind, ev­ery­thing,’ she says, crunch­ing on her toast. ‘And you must be able to un­der­stand that.’ Se­lected pieces will be launched ex­clu­sively on Net-a-Porter on Jan­uary 20, and the full col­lec­tion will be in Stephen Web­ster stores from Fe­bru­ary 10; stephenweb­ster.com; net-a-porter.com

Left Tracey Emin in her east Lon­don HQ. Below her jew­ellery col­lec­tion with Stephen Web­ster in­cludes thisMore Pas­sion ster­ling-sil­ver cuff in white, £4,150, and black cuff in resin, £3,750, both with18ct gold and di­a­monds

From top Toad charm, £400, Hare charm, £400, and My Favourite Lit­tle Bird neck­lace, £1,900, all in 18ct gold; Emin atthe Turner Prize awards in 1999

Below Heart and Kiss earrings in 18ct gold, £700, I Prom­ise To Love You ring in 18ct gold with di­a­monds, £11,700, and Love ring in 18ct gold withdi­a­monds, £1,400

Below With You I Breathe pen­dant in 18ct gold with di­a­monds, £4,100; Emin with her old friend Stephen Web­ster, with whom she has pro­duced ajew­ellery col­lec­tion

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