The making of The Beatles’ only known painting, signed by all four stars

Sheltered from throngs of fans in a Tokyo hotel room in 1966, the group found solace in completing a psychedelic artwork together

By 1966, The Beatles had established a whole new measure of success, a degree of stardom simply unknown before it happened to them. Headlines were made by everything they did and everywhere they went, and that included taking western music to the east. ‘Pop music had suddenly become very popular amongst Japanese youth, and there was a clamour for The Beatles to perform there,’ Mark Lewisohn, an English historian, biographer and Beatles authority, tells Christie’s.

While the group had toured around Europe, America and Australia, they had never experienced a culture so foreign to their own — until their manager, Brian Epstein, arranged for The Beatles to play five concerts at the Budokan hall, an indoor arena originally built for the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics.

The Beatles, Images of a Woman, 1966. Acrylic and watercolour on paper. 21½ x 31 in (54.6 x 78.8 cm), the image. 39¼ x 39¾ (99.7 x 101 cm), framed. Sold for $1,744,000 in The Exceptional Sale on 1 February 2024 at Christie’s in New York

During their stay in the Presidential Suite at Tokyo’s Hilton Hotel, from 29 June to 3 July 1966, The Beatles had heavy security — it was a point of pride for Japanese officials to keep the band safe from the hordes of fans and countless threats that were typical during the band’s media circus.

‘They were whisked in and out of their hotel through service entrances and exits,’ describes Lewisohn. ‘Apart from the fact that their cars sped down streets, and people might wave at them from a distance, no one really came into contact with them. Even in the arena, the audience was held far away from the stage.’

‘Going to Japan was an eye opener for The Beatles, except that they didn’t see much of it,’ the historian adds. Nevertheless, the band created a world of their own in their hotel room, thanks to the high-quality art supplies they were gifted. Equipped with fine Japanese art paper, watercolours, oil paints and brushes, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr created what would become the only known painting made and signed by each of them. The finished work, Images of a Woman (a name that a journalist subsequently gave the untitled painting) will be offered in The Exceptional Sale at Christie’s in New York on 1 February 2024.

beatles painting

Ringo Starr, John Lennon and Paul McCartney paint Images of a Woman at the Tokyo Hilton, June 1966. Photograph by Robert Whitaker/Getty Images

‘The Beatles gave up touring two months after they were in Tokyo, and they never went back as a group,’ says Lewisohn. ‘That’s one of the reasons this painting is so special, because they didn’t have this kind of time together again, stuck in a hotel room with nothing to do.’ The photographer Robert Whitaker had joined the band on tour, and his colour photographs brilliantly capture this snippet of time.

I never saw them calmer or more contented than at this time.
Robert Whitaker

In Whitaker’s photographs, four chairs are arranged around a table, on which the bandmembers have laid out a 30x40-inch rectangular sheet of paper. The chairs correspond with the four corners, and a lamp is placed in the centre, both to weigh down the paper and light it. Working under the illuminated bulb, each man has begun to create from his corner and gradually work towards the middle.

‘They’d stop [painting], go and do a concert, then it was “Let’s go back to the picture!”’ recalls Whitaker, adding that the work was completed over two nights. ‘I never saw them calmer or more contented than at this time.’ According to the photographer, The Beatles never discussed what they were painting — ‘it evolved naturally.’

beatles painting

The palette The Beatles used for Images of a Woman, June 1966. Photograph by Robert Whitaker/Getty Images

While the bandmembers are revered for their musical propensity, they each possessed a talent in the fine arts as well. ‘Each of The Beatles liked to draw, and there are many examples. They would often append autographs with a drawing,’ notes Lewisohn.

Lennon went to art school for three years and famously published two books of idiosyncratic writing with clever caricatures. ‘Paul was always a highly accomplished and inventive artist, easily capable of gaining an Art A-Level at the end of his two-year school course — he failed it only because he’d gone off on The Beatles’ first tour,’ says Lewisohn.

beatles painting

The Beatles with Images of a Woman at the Tokyo Hilton, June 1966. Photograph by Robert Whitaker/Getty Images

The historian adds that George and Ringo also drew ‘often and with plenty of talent. George treasured a schoolbook which showed that when he should have been paying attention to teachers, he was filling page after page with elaborate sketches of guitars.’

While The Beatles’ contributions to Images of a Woman seem decidedly abstract, the work acquired its current name in the late-1980s after a Japanese journalist thought he could see female genitals in Paul’s quadrant. While Lennon and McCartney favoured black paint for their portions, Harrison and Starr relied heavily on watercolour, and they united the quadrants with a punchy vermillion background to heighten the overall graphic effect. When the work was completed The Beatles removed the table lamp and signed an area of the remaining large white circle adjacent to their art.

Paul McCartney painting Images of a Woman at the Tokyo Hilton, June 1966. Photograph by Robert Whitaker/Getty Images

George Harrison painting Images of a Woman at the Tokyo Hilton, June 1966. Photograph by Robert Whitaker/Getty Images

Lewisohn recalls The Beatles’ generosity with their fans and supporters: ‘It’s typical of The Beatles that they would gift something to a fan or fan club without a second thought. It’s as well that they did, because otherwise this painting might not have survived.’ They welcomed the president of Japan’s official Beatles Fan Club, Tetsusaburo Shimoyama, into their hotel suite, and gave it to him.

Alternating between ‘ciggies’ and brushstrokes, The Beatles painted Images of a Woman, likely whilst listening to Revolver, their newly completed album, a month before the rest of the world heard it. Not only, then, does the painting spectacularly commemorate a special moment of respite and camaraderie between The Beatles — it also anticipates iconic songs, such as Eleanor Rigby and Yellow Submarine that would forever change the course of music history.

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