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YBA heavyweight and controversial, confessional, artist Tracey Emin is best known for her intimate sketches, sculptures and installations. Her practice spans painting, embroidery, film, drawing, sculpture and neon, yet remains linked by and grounded in themes of love, heartbreak, desire, pain, grief and the female experience.


Born in South London, in 1963, Emin was brought up by her family in Margate, Kent, with her twin brother Paul. From 1980-82 she studied fashion at Medway College of Design, where she met confessional poet and artist Billy Childish, becoming part of the Medway poets’ group herself.

In 1984 she attended Maidstone Arts college to study printing, where she graduated with a first. Following the end of her relationship with Childish in 1987, Emin moved to London, where she studied painting at the Royal College of Art. Unfortunately, the trauma Emin suffered following two abortions she went through after graduating, led her to destroy all works she made at the Academy.

First Works

Emin had her first solo exhibition Every Part of Me’s Bleeding at the Lehmann Maupin Gallery in 1999. The show contained works across a variety of mediums, including the installation that helped to launch her career and reputation, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995, or The Tent (1994). Also presented at the Young British Artists show, this work consisted of a canvas tent, with 102 names of every person Emin had ‘slept’ with sewn into the walls. The artist here played into the ambiguity of the term ‘slept,’ encouraging upset if considered a euphemism for sexual intercourse, as the names included those of her brother, family members and two unnamed foetuses.

Charles Saatchi acquired The Tent in 1999, later destroyed in a fire in the East Momart warehouse in 2004, alongside over 100 other works in the Saatchi collection. Despite being offered £1 million to remake The Tent after the fire, Emin refused.

Success & Most Famous Works

Shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1999, one of Emin’s most prolific, and indeed notorious, works is her installation My Bed. This work was created in response to Emin’s grief following a break up, and offers no attempt to hide the ugly reality of such emotional turmoil. Consisting of the artist’s own bed, we see soiled sheets and underwear, empty alcohol bottles, condoms, detritus and even bodily fluids utilised by Emin here. This work recreated the physical aftermath of what the artist called her 'mini nervous breakdown' where she did not leave her bed for four days.

My Bed garnered huge critical responses at the time, much of it negative, with many arguing that anyone could exhibit an unmade bed, or claiming that this installation was nothing other than sexual provocatism. Emin’s defence of her work and the fact that it caused such public disagreement all but ensured its commercial success. Despite Emin not winning the Turner Prize that year, her name was irrevocably solidified in the leading contemporary art scene.


In an interview in 2006, Emin stated that expressionist artists such as Egon Schiele and Edvard Munch have always been sources of inspiration for her. Munch’s 1895 painting Jealousy in particular spoke to a sense of self-effacement and brutal personal honesty that Emin is now known for herself. Indeed, the two artist’s works were paired in the recent Royal Academy Exhibition, Loneliness of the Soul, in 2021, where Emin’s choice of Munch works demonstrates their similarities.

Her use of neon lighting also indicates the influence of artist Bruce Nauman, and Emin’s focus on the confessional, and of the female experience draws influence from earlier feminist artists such as Carolee Schneeman and Frida Khalo.

Style & Technique

As an artist who works across many different forms of media, it is difficult to categorise Emin’s style. An element of personal experience however, seems to be a unifying feature of her output, with personal monologues often being incorporated in her prints, tapestries, neons and installations. Similarly, the bird motif is one that Emin consistently returns to, stating that 'To me, they represent something that is heavenly, because they fly. It’s like ascension…Sometimes when I’m in a strange mood or a bit low, I try to take myself out of it by drawing a bird.'  Intimate works such as Self Portrait as Small Bird, (2002) epitomise this metaphorical escapism.

Levels of autobiography in Emin’s work are often achieved through her use of her own personal items, photographs and handwriting. Her use of applique and needlepoint technique in her embroidered works suggest an inversion of typically female domestic crafts, contesting their association with ‘low’ craft.

Life & Times

Emin’s work is often viewed in terms of the abuse she suffered as a young teenager, and Emin herself has never shied away from discussing her rape at age 13, and the culture of sexual assault that surrounded her in her town growing up, as something that 'happened to a lot of girls.'

Emin joined the Young British Artists group, alongside huge names such as Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas in the early 90s. Her and Lucas opened The Shop in Bethnal Green in 1993, where they sold their works, namely t-shirts and ashtrays printed with slogans the pair created. While her media presence became less sensational after the 1990s, Emin remained a seminal figure in British contemporary art, with many high profile celebrity collectors, including Elton John and Orlando Bloom. She represented Britain in the 2007 Venice Biennale and was made a Royal Academician that same year.

She was appointed a CBE in 2013 and currently resides in Margate after surviving her battle with bladder cancer. When she does die she expresses her hope that her studio here will become a museum.

On The Market

Purchased by Charles Saatchi in 2000, My Bed (1999) secured over £2.5 million at auction in 2014 - more than double its pre-sale estimate and making it Emin’s most expensive work to date. Her most commonly auctioned works are her neon sculptures and her works on paper, drawings that often depict Emin herself and have garnered up to £46,000 (Christies 2013).

Mad Tracey From Margate, Everyone’s Been There by Tracey Emin

Mad Tracey From Margate, Everyone’s Been There © Tracey Emin 1997

1. £722,500 for Tracey Emin's Mad Tracey From Margate, Everyone's Been There

“I have always treated my blanket-making more like a painting in terms of building up layers and textures,” Emin said of her textile artworks. “I have never called them quilts. I have always called them blankets. They were most definitely blankets at the beginning because they were made with the intention of going on a bed.” When she sold her first blanket artwork Hotel International in 1994, Emin went to bed and “cried at the idea of [the work] going away”.

Mad Tracey From Margate. Everyone’s Been There, created in 1997, stitches together memories of the artist’s childhood growing up in the coastal town of Margate (which she writes more about in her memoir, Strangeland, published in 2005). The heartfelt early work was offered at Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in London on 16 October 2014, where it sold for £722,500.

Exorcism Of The Last Painting I Ever Made by Tracey Emin

Exorcism Of The Last Painting I Ever Made © Tracey Emin 1996

2. £722,500 for Tracey Emin's Exorcism Of The Last Painting I Ever Made

A ground-breaking conceptual piece, Exorcism Of The Last Painting I Ever Made was the result of a three-week performance at Stockholm’s Galleri Andreas Brändström in 1996. Working nude under the observation of gallery visitors, Emin completed 12 canvases, seven body paintings and 79 works on paper. She thought she would burn the lot in a ceremonial pyre at the end of the show but ultimately changed her mind.

Exorcism of the Last Painting – which included everything in the exhibition, from Emin’s art to the music CDs she worked to – was offered at Christie’s in London on 11 February 2005, where it sold for £722,500.

To Meet My Past by Tracey Emin

To Meet My Past © Tracey Emin 2002

3. £481,875 for Tracey Emin's To Meet My Past

Created four years after My Bed (no. 1 on this list), To Meet My Past was Emin’s attempt to reconcile with some embarrassing, personal moments – such as “I cannot believe I was afraid of ghosts, Tracey Emin 1969-1974”, stitched onto the flat sheet or “Weird sex”, appliquéd onto the headboard. The installation was quickly snapped up after it was created in 2002. Over a decade later, it was offered at Christie’s in London on 17 October 2013, where it achieved £481,875.

Hurricane by Tracey Emin

Hurricane © Tracey Emin 2007