Flights of fancy on an aircraft tail fin

Tracey Emin has chosen the symbol of peace as the livery for a fleet of British Airways planes – but airline art doesn't stop there

From April you will begin to see British Airways Airbus A319s and Boeing 747s with paint jobs that answer the old questions: "Is it a bird? Is it a plane?" with a single word. Dove.

Why? Since Noah, doves have been symbols of peace. Since 1896 they have had an Olympic association. Soon, they will be BA's pets.

Tracey Emin has been tasked with transforming a fleet of British Airways planes. Emin's great talent is to create titillating outrage (just) within the bounds of decorum. With genius, she has made a foul mouth, dirty laundry, bad language and rock'n'roll gynaecology acceptable to the middle-brow, middle-England culture of the Royal Academy. Now she is painting a plane with a peaceable pigeon.

But last December, Tracey was in an effing strop. Not in itself, I imagine, a terribly unusual thing. Demanding, stimulating, interesting, unbiddable, irrepressible, stylish, but a strop nonetheless. Here we were in Professor Emin's vast and impressive Spitalfields studio. In fact, more of a property development than an artist's retreat: nearly an entire block with wonderful, cavernous white spaces and a roof terrace. It's an inspired retrieval of a Victorian industrial building with the benefit of lots of pre-stropped and cowed assistants.

"'Ere. I want to show you!" and Tracey bounded off in the lead to show me the subterranean swimming pool and the offices and the views. She is curiously and appealingly child-like in person. Then, suitably energised, at last we got back to the work in progress. Today, this was a floor covered with paintings and drawings of doves. Gold and white were recurrent. Looking on, a Brighton-based designer called Pascal Anson and a British Airways person, thoughtfully biting her lower lip, a tad downcast. Tracey began to explain, against a background of recent work that deals frankly with the graphic possibilities of self-love, that she had no intention of compromising her integrity as an artist to benefit any of the airline's obscene corporate needs. The BA lip was bitten just perceptibly deeper.

With great courage, even a reckless lack of caution for a business so philosophically committed to safety, British Airways has taken on Tracey as a "Great Briton" for the Olympics year. Her task is to mentor Pascal as he works up an all-over paint scheme for a single-aisle Airbus or 747. Tracey has often said that aircraft are the "greatest invention". Now she is having her way with one. Eventually, after the first plane is taken in to be painted on 3 April, there will be 12 rolled out in total. Other BA Great Britons are Heston Blumenthal, mentoring a cook, and Richard E Grant, mentoring a film-maker.

The history of airline livery begins with imperialist assumptions: the now faded "legacy" airlines were flying propaganda for colonial powers. Just as Victorian banks used careful Roman typography to suggest a comforting financial probity, in the days of the Handley Page Hercules, Imperial Airways needed to project notions of dignity, authority and security in its graphics. You could say the same for Sabena (the former national airline of Belgium) or Pan American.

And since excitement is not always welcome when flying, who is to say that conservative liveries did not also have a composing influence on the occasional nervous passenger? This is one reason an earlier British Airways campaign to enliven its appearance, as audacious as it was misconceived, failed. The design consultancy Newell and Sorrell began painting BA empennages with folk art in 1997. This, to suggest the wholesome inclusiveness of a global airline.

Alas, the colourful variety on the tails only confused ground controllers while, subconsciously, customers rebelled at the suggestion their plane was in the hands, not of a cool technocrat, but a hot-blooded stone-age nomad. When Margaret Thatcher disdainfully covered an ethnic BA model with a handkerchief, the airline quickly reverted to the Union flag as its identifying device. Crash and burn? Let's just say the scheme did not fly.

But there is an interesting, small history of artists and designers being successfully involved with aircraft. Le Corbusier used to declare "l'avion accuse!", meaning the functional standards of aircraft should inspire earthbound designers to acts of dutiful replication. Une machine à habiter? A fuselage for living in? Here you have it. The great pomaded, perfumed and (chromium) plated huckster, Raymond Loewy, did the paint job for Air Force One in the 1960s: splendid to think that Obama uses heraldry by the man who designed the Pepsodent toothpaste tube and the Lucky Strike cigarette packet.

Best of all is the "The End of the Plain Plane" campaign that Mad Men-era Madison Avenue Mad Woman Mary Wells Lawrence created for the Texan airline Braniff in 1965. A programme that began with 727s painted solid jelly bean colours by designer Alexander Girard (who specified Herman Miller fabrics for the cabins) evolved into uniforms by Emilio Pucci and ads where Andy Warhol used to say "When you got it, flaunt it". Next, Alexander Calder painted a Braniff DC-8, first seen at Paris in 1975, to reflect the bright colours of Latin America. By the time the airline went colourfully bust in 1982, after a little too much flaunting, Braniff's 747 was painted a startling tangerine and known as "The Big Orange". They did not get the big lemon they deserved.

As air travel becomes more familiar, conservative hesitancy about liveries diminishes. Southwest Airlines has a deal with the SeaWorld marine park so, in the logic of business, you can fly in a 737-700 painted as a killer whale. (They also have a bald eagle and an Israeli swimsuit model.) Berlin has a flying brown bear to advertise its civic virtues while Air New Zealand recently took delivery of an All Black 777. Emirates has begun to use the belly as ad space. Expect more: nature abhors vacuums and advertising agencies abhor empty space. Aircraft have lots.

One of the great adventures of the modern age is that art left the studios and went, first, on to the street and now into the air. So why was our Trace in a strop? She was reluctant to share billing with the airline. If gentle doves on a small A319 make her cross, expect something really interesting when they give her a vast A380 as an empty canvas. I recommend it.

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