Hen the morning of the day the Queen dies, the art collectors Paul Stolper and Andrew Wilson happen to be staring at a picture of her face. It’s a piece of card, smaller than a vinyl LP, which artist Jamie Reid produced for a concert by the Sex Pistols. He took the classic Cecil Beaton portrait, customized it with a safety pin through her lip, printed it on a union flag, and later hole-punched it for potential use as bunting on the band’s notorious Jubilee boat trip on 7 June 1977, although it was never used. This is the piece that seeded the world most extraordinary collection of visual iconography relating to punk rock’s most important band. Today it fills a room in the west London storage facility of Sotheby’s, prior to going up for auction next month.
It began in 1990. Stolper and Wilson were visiting Christie’s auction house to see a painting by Patrick Caulfield. Stolper is now a successful art dealer and Wilson was until recently a senior curator at Tate Britain, but back then they were young men with straitened budgets and the Caulfield was wildly unattainable. Before leaving empty-handed, though, they half-heartedly checked out a sale of rock and pop memorabilia, and the bunting card grabbed their attention.
“We thought wow, we can afford this, it speaks to us in terms of visual language, and it’s steeped in 20th-century cultural history,” Stolper remembers. “We understood early on what we wanted to collect and how to do it. We were at the right moment to build a really important collection, and that rarely happens. You couldn’t put this collection together now.”
Most of the items in the Stolper Wilson collection cost just tens or hundreds of pounds to acquire. In the 1990s, expensively desirable artifacts such as signed records and guitars did not interest them, while the things they did care about – posters, flyers, letters – didn’t excite punk collectors. In fact, there is no music in the collection at all. “Sex Pistols was unlike any other band, any other situation, because right from the beginning it was about art as life lived,” says Wilson. “Yes, it was music, but it was also about a way of being in the world.”
The two friends visited auction houses and memorabilia traders while scouring record shop walls for Blu-Tacked old handbills. Once word got around, characters from the band’s inner orbit began to come forward with items to sell. “I would come home with pieces of paper and my wife would say, ‘What have you bought?’” Stolper recalls, laughing. “And I’d say: ‘This is really important. It’s the first Pistols press release!’”
Although Stolper and Wilson could never be mistaken for aging punks, they were fans at the time. Wilson, who was 14 in 1976, remembers buying God Save the Queen in the week of its release. Stolper, who was 11, was living in Sloane Square, not far from the boutique Sex, owned by the Sex Pistols’ manager, Malcolm McLaren. “I’d walk up and down the Kings Road and see all the punks. I was so young that I didn’t understand the politics of it, but I got the culture because I was right there.”
By 1996, the collection was large enough to merit an exhibition, titled “I Groaned With Pain” … Sex, Seditionaries and the Sex Pistols, in the Eagle Gallery, above a pub in Clerkwenwell. Stolper and Wilson chose clean white frames on blank walls to signal that this was about art, not rock. Visitors included several of the Young British Artists, who were often compared to punks then, although less so now. “Every contemporary artist I know came to that show,” Stolper says. “Everyone our age was fully aware of the visual imagery.” Damien Hirst even named a quadtych of medicine cabinets after Sex Pistols songs.
McLaren came, too, and was overwhelmed by this monument to his youthful endeavors. He had moved on so quickly after the Sex Pistols ended in explosive acrimony in 1978 that he had never thought to curate this period of his life. “It was a very ephemeral culture,” Wilson says. “These things weren’t as valued then as they are now.”
The collectors sat down with him for a long conversation. “We weren’t interested in asking what was Sid really like?” Stolper counts. “We wanted to ask, where did this come from? We finished the interview with a great question: ‘So, Malcolm, did you think it was art?’ There was a long silence, then he said: ‘In a way, it was bigger than art.’”
If Pistol, Danny Boyle’s recent TV series, was the story of a rock band, then this collection is the story of an idea: a collaborative multimedia art project in which Reid and McLaren, who met at Croydon art school, were at least as significant as Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious. “They all brought their own unique visions and the Sex Pistols was the pot that everyone threw everything into,” Stolper says. Many of the images, ostensibly created to promote gigs and records, hold up as artworks in their own right. You could see them without having heard a note of the Sex Pistols’ music and know that they represented a radically significant moment in British youth culture. “This is all at the service of something else,” Wilson says, “and working out what that something else is is the intriguing part of it.”
The two men circle the room, proudly explaining the stories behind their favorite artifacts. The collection defamiliarises famous imagery by contextualising it as the product of high-speed, low-budget experimentation. Two flyers for shows at the 100 Club in 1976, just 10 weeks apart, show how Helen Wellington-Lloyd’s original block-capital logo led to Reid’s ransom-letter collage. Reid’s tatty Lion Brand exercise book charts the project’s final days, with sketched ideas for the brutally cynical 1980 compilation album Flogging a Dead Horse and scribbled reminders to chase up money owed by McLaren. Pink lyric sheets for Vicious’s first band, the Flowers of Romance, reveal surprisingly sensitive penmanship, each dotted with a flamboyant globe. The vast poster for the band’s first and only studio album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, is the copy that Vicious pinned to the wall of his room in New York’s Chelsea hotel before his death in 1979. It still bears the stains from when he cleaned his heroin syringes.
As for McLaren, his determination to place the band in a long tradition of English dissidents and wild boys is vividly expressed in his hand-lettered poster for their final UK concert, on Christmas Day 1977. “This true and dirty tale has BEEN CONTINUING THROUGHOUT 200 years of teenage anarchy,” he wrote beside a George Cruikshank illustration of Dickensian urchins. McLaren and Reid’s shared love of situationism led to the diversion of a poster for the Belgian tourist industry into an advertisement for the caustic single Holidays in the Sun. “It’s taking something familiar and presenting it in a way that changes your attitude to the world you live in,” Wilson says. “Everything was about not necessarily a refusal but a reversal.”
Perhaps the funniest item in the collection is the press kit put together by Warner Bros Records for the US release of Never Mind the Bollocks, with its inside-out T-shirt and comic-strip retelling of the band’s story. Its corporate travesty of the Sex Pistols’ underdog aesthetic foreshadowed all the subsequent ersatz appropriations of punk signifiers, from advertising to boutique hotel rooms. “The imagery is rehashed constantly,” Stolper says. “If there’s a new young pop star and he’s the ‘rebel’, there will be the punk attitude. It’s rebelling by numbers. This is the touchstone of all of that.”
Stolper and Wilson considered their work done by 2004, after they acquired the original lyrics to Holidays in the Sun, No Feelings and Submission. That year they held two more exhibitions, at the Hospital gallery in Covent Garden and Urbis in Manchester. In the spirit of punk, they felt that it was becoming too big and commercial, so they never did another. “The audience at the Eagle was an art audience and the audience at the Hospital was everybody,” says Wilson.
They did, however, loan items to museums around the world. The work of looking after the collection and traveling to supervise the installation is one reason why they have chosen to sell it. Having made the difficult decision to break it up, they now talk about it like proud parents watching their children fly the nest. “It’s got to lead another life now,” Wilson says. “The arc of collecting inevitably leads to dispersal – this sense of letting it out in the world so other people can have the fun that we’ve had.”
This, then, is their last chance to see the collection in full and reflect on the story it tells about the Sex Pistols, and about their own lives. “When I was a kid the music seemed really important,” Wilson says. “Now I find it quite hard to listen to some of the music. Idol this” – he sweeps a hand around the room – “I still find it endlessly fascinating and enriching. It’s more than just the music. And it’s more than just the imagery. It’s total art.”