Thatcher and tampons: How Tracey Emin came to sell her unmade bed to Charles Saatchi

British artist says she had previously refused to sell her work to the YBA collector after his ad campaign rocketed Margaret Thatcher to power in 1979

Tracey Emin with her My Bed at Christie's, London Credit: PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

Tracey Emin with her My Bed at Christie's, London Credit: PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

Tracey Emin has revealed how she first met the advertising mogul and YBA collector Charles Saatchi, when he managed to sweeten the deal he made to buy her unmade bed with a Kit Kat.

In a characteristically frank anecdote Emin posted on Instagram, together with a photograph of her cats Teacup and Pancake on her bed, she recounts how she was 20 minutes late for her meeting with Saatchi outside a coffee shop off Cork Street in Mayfair. “When I got there he was just leaving, I was sweating because I’d been running!” Emin says.

Saatchi was eating a Kit Kat. Breaking the chocolate bar in half, he offered a finger to Emin, telling her to “take a break , have a KitKat!” She adds: “I think it must have been one of his ad campaigns at the time.”

But it was another advertising campaign which had proved to be a real sticking point for Emin. In 1979, Saatchi had helped Margaret Thatcher rocket to power with a political poster showing a dole queue snaking out from an employment office. The strap line read: “Labour isn’t working”, and underneath, in smaller type, “Britain’s better off with the Tories”. Thatcher won a landslide election, beginning 18 years of Conservative rule.

When Saatchi asked Emin why she had refused to sell him her work, Emin replied that it was because he had put Thatcher in power. To which Saatchi replied: “My girl… I do ad campaigns for everything… even Tampax.” Emin retorted: “Well you should have stuck to tampons , it would have been more honourable.” Emin has since flip flopped her views on the Conservatives, publicly announcing that she had switched allegiance from Labour to the Tories a decade ago. But, in 2019, she spoke out against Brexit and former Tory prime ministers David Cameron and Theresa May.

Despite their differences, Emin says she hit it off with Saatchi. “We shook hands and it was agreed that he would buy the bed,” she says. “Just as I was leaving… he said ‘One last thing, promise me you’ll never make another one’.” Laughing, Emin says she couldn’t agree to Saatchi’s request: “Don’t be mad… of course I’m going to make another one… everyday… it’s my bed.”

Saatchi bought My Bed (1998) for a reported £150,000 in 2000. A year earlier, Emin had been nominated for the Turner Prize for the installation of an unmade bed, strewn with empty vodka bottles, cigarette butts and discarded condoms. The artist had created the work in her Waterloo council flat after a bout of suicidal depression following the breakdown of a relationship.

Emin says: “That meeting changed everything for me… The sale of the bed was my deposit for a house. Something I never dreamt would be possible. Being an artist is always about being yourself but not necessarily what others expect of you.”

Saatchi sold the installation at Christie’s in 2014 for £2.5m to White Cube gallery owner Jay Jopling, who was bidding on behalf of his client, Count Christian Duerckheim. The German collector subsequently agreed to loan My Bed to the Tate for ten years, saying in a statement: “I always admired the honesty of Tracey, but I bought My Bed because it is a metaphor for life, where troubles begin and logics die.” The work went on show at Tate Britain in 2015, together with six drawings Emin donated to the museum and two paintings by Francis Bacon, and at Turner Contemporary, in Emin's hometown of Margate, in 2017.


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