Hockney joins Britain's most exclusive club with Order of Merit

Queen bestows honour reserved for elite 24 on pop art pioneer who once turned down knighthood

The Queen has welcomed the celebrated artist David Hockney into one of the most exclusive clubs in Britain, making him one of just 24 members of the Order of Merit.

Buckingham Palace announced yesterday that the 74-year-old Yorkshireman had been awarded what is regarded as "the UK's highest honour". This comes just weeks before a major show of his new work is due to open at the Royal Academy in London. He declined to comment yesterday other than to say: "It's nice to know they are not prejudiced against the older smoker."

Martin Gayford, author of A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney, said: "This is a fitting award. He is certainly among Britain's finest painters." He described Hockney as "a hugely naturally talented painter and draughtsman". Hockney, at the forefront of the British pop art movement in the 1960s and whose works include A Bigger Splash, has become a member of the Order despite refusing an knighthood in 1990, although he later accepted the Companion of Honour.

He joins the playwright Sir Tom Stoppard, Baroness Thatcher and the broadcaster Sir David Attenborough as members of the Order of Merit, a little known but hugely prestigious award bestowed by the Queen without ministerial advice. It is presented to individuals of great achievement in the fields of arts, learning, literature, science and other areas of public service.

Past recipients include Sir Winston Churchill and Florence Nightingale. The Order of Merit was created by King Edward VII in 1902. Recipients are awarded a red and blue enamel badge, which reads, "For Merit". They also have their portrait painted for the Royal Collection and attend a dinner with the Queen every five years.

In full: the other 23

John Howard (politician)
Sir Andrew Huxley (physiologist)
Baroness Thatcher
Lord Foster (architect)
Sir Anthony Caro (sculptor)
Sir Tom Stoppard (playwright)
Sir David Attenborough
Lady Boothroyd (former Commons speaker)
Sir Tim Berners-Lee (internet pioneer)
Prince of Wales
Duke of Edinburgh
Dr Frederick Sanger (biochemist)
Jean Chretien (politician)
Neil MacGregor
Lord Rothschild (banker)
Robert McCredie (scientist)
Lord Rees (astrophysicist)
Sir Aaron Klug (chemist)
Owen Chadwick (historian)
Sir Michael Atiyah and Sir Roger Penrose (mathematicians)
Sir Michael Howard (historian)
Lord Eames (Reverend).

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