Buckingham Palace with First Prize is one of Morley's most important and best-known paintings. It is both one of the last of his celebrated super-realist paintings and, along with the other seminal work of this period Race Track, now in the Ludwig Museum in Budapest, one of the first of the new generation of Morley's paintings. Probably the first of Morley's works to begin to articulate the new, bolder and more painterly style that would distinguish his paintings of the 1970's an early '80s, this large an imposing picture is also a work that, like Morley's art as a whole extends beyond categorisation. Overtly demonstrating both the artificiality and the superficiality of its imagery and with its three-dimensional, ready-made additions of a rosette and a paint-filled water pistol, this painting is the first of Morley's paintings to truly transcend the boundaries of his art into three-dimensions and into performance art.
It was in the painting Race Track of 1970 that Morley first began to break away from the super-realist style of painting, which had characterised his art throughout the 1960s. This famous painting, copied from a poster of a race meeting in Durban, South Africa was his most ambitious photorealist painting to date. It called for the individual painting of thousands of figures in the crowd and took Morley many months to paint. After completing the work Morley was prompted by the political circumstances in South Africa, the film 'Z' by Costa-Gavras, and largely by his own unconscious will to negate the image by painting a large 'X' across it. The crossing out with an 'X' was both a political gesture, a reference to Malcolm 'X' and a painterly negation of his former style.
Buckingham Palace with First Prize was the next major painting Morley attempted, a work as finely detailed and complex as Race Track. Building on the conceptual additions and painterly developments he had made in Race Track Morley took the step of making clear the mass-media source of his imagery, in this case a popular postcard of Buckinghamn Palace, by commissioning a sign-painter to paint the copyright byline The Badge & Novelty Co (London) TEL 01-5807771 onto the painting. In this, he was to some extent emulating Duchamp who had done the same thing for his 1918 painting Tu'm . Morely painted Buckingham Palace with First Prize as part of a collective commission by the association of F.T.D. Florists for paintings representing flowers and it is probably for this reason that the artist whimsically pinned onto the self-evidently artificial imagery of the painted work, a gymkhana rosette awarding first prize. With the paintings representation of the royal palace with Horseguards parading before a splendid array of possibly prize-winning flowers, the rosette seems to compliment all the superlatives of the pagentry and glamour that this sumptuous painting of the parade in front of the palace on a glorious summer day evokes. Both the cliché and the over-the-top kitsch of this scene seem ideally suited to the super-realist style of the painting which Morley is clearly beginning to deconstruct in this work. In particular, in the flowers in this painting Morley begins to deliberately exaggerate and expand his style, using larger, more sumptuous brushstrokes, to create a more hallucinogenic and superficial sense of surface to his work. "I was in my studio with a friend looking at one of those Super-Realist paintings. We were really stoned and started looking at tiny bits of the painting through a magnifying glass - that's really where the energy of the painting was - in all those tiny strokes. I realized I wanted to see through and into, instead of across. I became more interested in the physicality of the surface, I mean, what are all those hairs on the brush for anyway? After that I started roughing it up. I started smoking a lot of pot. And then I would look at these grids, at these little bits of paintings under a microscope, and they'd get very hallucinogenic. So I started increasing the brush-stroke sizes little by little. Coming out of that closet." (Morley cited in Malcolm Morley. Itineries Jean-Claude Lebensztejn, London, 2001, p. 64)
The life of the painting was not yet completed however. Four years after Morley had finished painting the work and sold it to F.T.D. Florists, it became the focus of one of Morley's celebrated "actions" for "Social Sculpture" when it was put up at auction in Paris at the Palais Galleria. On being made aware of the forthcoming sale of the work, Morley, who was in Paris for an exhibition of his work at the Galerie Piltzer, started a rumour in order to heighten expectation, that something would "happen" at the auction. When the painting came up for sale Morely made an appearance in the sale room dressed in evening dress (à la Yves Klein) and donning a top hat armed with a water-pistol filled with purple paint (the imperial colour). His intention was to subvert the sale of the work by painting the word "faux" (fake) over the painting with the sprayed paint from his water pistol. The auction house, however, aware that Morley was intending to intervene in their sale of the painting in some manner, had taken the precaution of covering the painting with transparent plastic sheeting.
As Morley, pointed to the auction hall and declared "This is laundry money", the auction house porters swiftly attempted to remove the painting. Morely, unable to negate the painting's surface by painting over it (as he had done with Race Track) then added to the work by nailing the loaded gun on the top right hand corner of the work, diagonally across from the rosette. To do this he used a hammer and nail that he had bought in the basement of the Bazar de l'Hôtel de Ville as a homage to Duchamp. In this way, the work was completed. It was subsequently bought at this auction, complete with added water pistol, by the painting's present owner. Morley's action at the Palais Galleria, along with many others that he performed at this time in the mid-1970s, he called "Social Sculpture". The underlying purpose of these actions he stated, was to demonstrate the fact that "society makes art, not artists". (cited in Malcolm Morley, exh. cat, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 1993, p. 174)