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June 03 2011

The art of politics

Peter Mandelson went for a portrait of Elizabeth 1, Samantha Cameron chose a Lowry . . . These paintings are from the Government Art Collection which, for the first time in its 113-year history, is going on public display

There are three great national art collections that exist somewhere in the no-man's-land between the public and the private: the Royal Collection, the Arts Council Collection and the Government Art Collection. These are big beasts. The Queen, for example, has in her care some 7,000 paintings, 40,000 drawings and 150,000 prints which, according to the Palace, she holds, "in trust as Sovereign for her successors and the Nation, and are not owned by her as a private individual"; the Arts Council's holdings number some 7,500 works, mostly of modern or contemporary British art; and the last of the three, the Government Art Collection, has a hefty 13,500 pieces.

The financial value of these national assets is incalculable – the Royal Collection alone contains 600 Leonardo drawings – but certainly runs into the billions. Their value to Britain's cultural life is equally hard to pin down. While 3,000 items from the Royal Collection are on long-term loan to other museums and galleries and the Queen's Gallery itself has a rolling programme of exhibitions, the bulk of her collection is hidden from view. The Arts Council is a generous lender, sub-letting its pieces to galleries around the country and abroad. However, the collection that is most rarely seen by the people who paid for it is the Government Art Collection. Rarely seen that is until now. For the first time, a selection of the collection's works is on public display – at the Whitechapel Gallery – in the first of five exhibitions showcasing this little-known treasure hoard.

The Government Art Collection's roots go back to 1898 when the Office of Works decided to collate the artworks dotted piecemeal around government buildings. A year later, the Treasury agreed to pay £150 for five portraits to hang in the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary's offices, and in a nice example of Whitehall sophistry, justified the expense on the grounds that the pictures would, "save us a good sum in decoration". Shortly afterwards both the sum and the remit were increased, but the provision remained only for buildings in Britain – ambassadors abroad were required to take responsibility for adorning their empty embassy walls themselves.

It wasn't until the mid 1930s that the men who administered the pink part of the map were included in the scheme and an Overseas Picture Committee – which included the directors of the National Gallery, the Tate Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery – was formed to supervise the purchasing, albeit with the Foreign Secretary's prescient warning that buying modern art might lead to "undesirable controversy" ringing in their ears.

As the collection became more established its potential for acting as a showcase for contemporary British art was recognised and works by living artists began to be commissioned. In the 1950s and 60s a concerted effort was made to expand the collection and use it to present Britain's cultural face to the wider world. The prime mover was Harold Wilson, the first PM to display modern art in Downing Street, believing that the "white heat" of the technological revolution warmed the British art world too. Perhaps predictably Mrs Thatcher held no truck with Wilson's taste and preferred the company of historical portraits of great men. It was not Tony Blair's fixation with Cool Britannia that put contemporary art back in No 10 but the determinedly uncool John Major. In this, if in nothing else, succeeding Labour governments and the Coalition took their lead from him.

At any one time two thirds of the collection are on display in 400 government buildings around the world. The remainder are stored in an anonymous building just off the northern end of London's Tottenham Court Road, a street better known for electronics shops and sofa outlets than for art. But it is here that ministers and ambassadors can come, in one of the choicest perks of office, to go through the racks of prints and paintings and pick what they would like on their walls. As the collection's director Penny Johnson diplomatically puts it, some mandarins are too busy – for which read "uninterested" – to visit in person, but of the top tier of the current government both Nick Clegg and George Osborne ordered their ministerial cars to this unprepossessing spot.

Naturally the comings and goings are at their greatest during a change of government – the new incumbents are often as quick to distance themselves from their predecessors' pictures as they are from their policies.

The GAC, having seen 22 different administrations during the course of its history, is well used to dealing with politicians' foibles. For those new appointees oblivious to their working environment, the collection's staff in true Yes Minister style, offers a gentle steer – promoting contemporary pieces and suggesting which pictures would best suit which office. And so it goes that some government members win a reputation for avant-garde taste when it isn't theirs at all.

As part of its brief to champion British art, the GAC also has a rolling six-monthly display of contemporary works at No 10 itself. It means that the such artists as Susan Hiller and Mary Martin can keep temporary company with the paintings of Gainsborough, Constable, Turner, Nash and Freud that family Cameron already enjoys.

Although the present Prime Minister didn't make it to the Tottenham Court Road repository himself, those ministers who do venture north will find a large room filled with rack after rack of carefully labelled artworks ranging chronologically from two panel portraits of Henry VI and Edward IV painted c1530 to a pair of collages by Abigail Reynolds created last year. While some other countries run similar art schemes, no other can match the GAC's historical spread. The 2010 pieces, however, may well be the last new works for a while as spending cuts mean the GAC has no purchasing budget for the next two years.

Slide out each rack though and there is still plenty to choose from. They are draped with portraits of past statesmen and great Britons by the likes of Peter Lely and Godfrey Kneller; a David Bomberg drawing of boats on the Thames nestles against a Patrick Caulfield pipe; a huge composite Howard Hodgkin etching competes in colour with bright chromatic splashes from Victor Pasmore; an immaculately detailed pencil drawing of a London weed by Michael Landy contrasts with a Martin Creed neon sculpture, and on and on it goes.

The bulk of the works, however, are by very minor artists, from Eleazar Albin to George Zobel. And there are innumerable topographical prints and vistas of British towns of the sort that usually hang forgotten in the back bedrooms of grand country houses and which are destined some day to fill a space in a Whitehall corridor or an office in our consulate in Armenia.

The Whitechapel exhibition can give only the merest hint of the breadth of the collection. It features 26 works chosen by seven "curators", among them the PM's wife Samantha Cameron, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, former Labour minister Lord Mandelson and the head of MI6 Sir John Sawers. Their choices all come from pieces that have been in their workplaces and the majority are contemporary. The future four exhibitions, selected by notaries including the artist Cornelia Parker, the historian Simon Schama, and the non-political staff of No 10, will help fill out the picture.

Needless to say, the pieces now on display provide numerous opportunities for amateur psychologising. Just as you can judge a man from his shoes you can judge a politician by his art. Lord Mandelson, for example, has selected an anonymous 16th-century portrait of Elizabeth I, a photograph by David Dawson of the current Queen Elizabeth sitting for her portrait by Lucian Freud, a small bronze by John Michael Rysbrack of the artist-courtier Rubens, and a design for the Festival of Britain by Cecil Stephenson. So, that's one absolute monarch, one picture mixing royalty and respectable celebrity, one representation of a well-travelled international statesman who hailed from the Brussels region, and one painting hinting at Herbert Morrison, Mandelson's grandfather and the force behind the festival. It is hard not to come to the conclusion that what Baron Mandelson looks for in a work of art is not its intrinsic qualities but how it reflects the New Labour grandee himself. The pieces add up to a collective self-portrait.

Sir John Sawers's picks include both Jim Lambie's The Doors and Norman Blamey's In the Cellar Mirror. The former is a concertinaed wooden sculpture of a pink door that appears, depending on which angle you view it from, to be simultaneously open, closed or in the act of opening; the latter is a double portrait seen via a mirror – each is a trompe l'oeil showing that even in his art choices our spy chief prefers things not to be what they initially seem.

Samantha Cameron's selection of LS Lowry's teeming Lancashire Fair, Good Friday, Daisy Nook can be read as a nod to the man-of-the-people protestations of her husband's administration. Meanwhile, the presence on the walls of our Moscow embassy of Derek Boshier's I Wonder What My Heroes Think of the Space Race, painted in 1962 during the Cold War, is an elegant bit of teasing by the ambassador, Dame Anne Pringle. And poor Ed Vaizey, the Minister for Culture, has been so browbeaten by red boxes full of documents that he even hangs text on his walls – Michael Landy's poignantly titled Compulsory Obsolescence, a hand- written/drawn collage of letters, faxes and newspaper clippings.

The exhibition has already prompted some utilitarian-minded individuals to question whether in these straitened times the collection shouldn't be sold off and the money used for more efficacious projects. Penny Johnson's practised response is that the pictures earn their keep: many were bought at a discount because artists are keen for their work to be part of the collection; every item in the collection has at some point been sent out and will travel again; by the terms of its brief the GAC, like other accredited museums and galleries, is forbidden from deaccessioning works; and, above all, it is a working collection with a job description to promote both Britain and Britart in general.

It is, of course, no coincidence that the GAC is showing its face at a moment in time when every public institution has to justify its existence. And perhaps now that their expenses are not quite so malleable, our political masters have all the more need for the consolations of art.

• The Government Art Collection is at the Whitechapel Gallery, London until 4 September 2012. For more information call 020 7522 7888. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Political figures pick their top artworks

From Samantha Cameron to Lord Mandelson, political figures have chosen their favourite works from the Government Art Collection for a new exhibition. What do their choices reveal?

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December 03 2010

The great British art collection

Nick Clegg and Samantha Cameron among guest curators for exhibition of works normally housed in embassies and ministries

It has witnessed governments and empires collapse, heard the gossip of mandarins and seen the rise and fall of many a calculating politician. But, for the first time, the Government Art Collection is to face an entirely different audience – the public who paid for its acquisition.

The collection – which has decorated British embassies, consulates and ministerial buildings throughout the world for more than a century – is going to be displayed to the public.

Arch political operator Lord Mandelson, the prime minister's wife, Samantha Cameron, and the chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, Sir John Sawers, are among the guest curators choosing which of the 13,500 works will go on display.

Works from the collection, whose purpose is to promote the best of British art, will be on display at the Whitechapel Gallery in east London from June next year until September 2012. "The government art collection has been in existence since 1898, but this is the first time in its 113-year history that people will be able to walk in off the street to see it, we are thrilled to have it running for 15 months," said Penny Johnson, director of the collection.

The works serve an important diplomatic service, she said. "They can act as important icebreakers, or conversation starters. Of course the reason they are there is to promote British art but if they help make conversations flow a little easier, that's another positive."

The first of five displays will also include choices from the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, the British high commissioner to South Africa, Lord Boateng, the British ambassador to Moscow, Dame Anne Pringle, and culture minister Ed Vaizey.

"The collection is a unique treasure," said Vaizey. "It's run on a shoestring and shown in a haphazard way in ministries and embassies, but what better way to open it to the public than at the Whitechapel Gallery in east London, in one of the most diverse communities in the country."

Out of the thousands of paintings, prints and sculptures hanging on the walls of embassies around the world or kept at the collection's base off Tottenham Court Road in central London, Samantha Cameron chose a work by distinctly working class, unavoidably northern painter LS Lowry. Lancashire Fair: Good Friday, Daisy Nook, painted in 1946 and bought by the collection for £120 a year later, depicts mill workers enjoying one of their two statutory days' holiday a year at a bustling fair.

Mandelson has plumped for a shadowy historical portrait of the celebrated, but ruthless, Queen Elizabeth I by an unknown artist, while Boateng has chosen Peas are the New Beans by Bob and Roberta Smith.

The collection was established, in a typically British way, almost by accident, with parliament deciding that it was cheaper to buy large portraits to cover walls than redecorate Whitehall at the end of the 19th century. Since then the attention bestowed on the collection has depended in no small part on the political rough and tumble of the age, with the art in buildings such as Downing Street and the Treasury changed to suit the tastes of new inhabitants after each new government or cabinet reshuffle. And while David Cameron was too busy to chose the art for his new offices personally, both his deputy Nick Clegg and his right hand man George Osborne took a keen interest.

For the consulates and embassies around the world, the 14-strong team at the collection chose works that not only show off the best of British, but hold relevance for the countries they live in.

A dashingly romantic portrait of Lord George Gordon Byron, by Thomas Phillips, bought for £110 in 1952, resides in the Greek embassy in Athens, a nod to the poet's fateful decision to fight in the Greek war of independence, while there are no prizes for guessing where LA woman by Scottish artist Jim Lambie can be found.

Johnson and her team continue to scour small art galleries and emerging artists' studios to invest in the British art of the future with a £200,000 annual budget to add to the collection, which includes work by Tracy Emin, Damien Hirst, Constable, Lucian Freud, David Hockney and Paul Nash,

Pushing in a rail of priceless works from the 16th century onwards, at the collection offices in central London, she suggested one reason why the public should be keen to visit the exhibition. "If these paintings had ears, imagine what they would they have heard, and known," she said. "They've had very interesting lives." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 05 2009

Critical Eye

Round-up of reviews

'Tis the season for Christmas round-ups and "Books of the Year" lists. "The publication of the magnificent six-volume Vincent Van Gogh: The Letters will count for many art lovers as the book event of the year," Rachel Campbell-Johnson announced in the Times, although in the Sunday Times Frank Whitford went one better: "It has already been declared by some not so much book of the year as of the decade." "This is a rare treasure," Margaret Drabble agreed in the New Statesman, "and a joy to handle and to read." A snip at £325.

"Historical ignorance breeds political apathy, and it is this deficiency that two excellent books will correct," Dan Jones noted in the Times, recommending David Horspool's The English Rebel and Ben Wilson's What Price Liberty?. "Both these books felt extremely relevant in a year of expenses scandals, the G20 protests and backbench rebellions in parliament." Dominic Sandbrook in the Daily Telegraph also chose The English Rebel, describing it as "a wonderfully old-fashioned narrative in which few pages pass without somebody losing his head to a masked axeman". Elsewhere in the Daily Telegraph, Boris Johnson chose Stanley I Presume by his father: "It is a rip-roaring read and I hope it helps him to break down the barriers of political correctness and win the safe Conservative seat he so richly deserves."

"The novel that has dominated the year is Hilary Mantel's magnificent Man Booker prize-winning Wolf Hall," Lorna Bradbury wrote in the Daily Telegraph. "The triumph of the novel is its modern sensibility, which keeps it just the right side of pastiche." "Tour de force is a term much overused," Erica Wagner said in the Times, "yet it is applicable here: all Mantel's gifts are on display in this novel painting a searing portrait of intrigue at the court of Henry VIII." Other favourites included Colm Tóibín's Brooklyn ("A work of such skill, understatement and sly jewelled merriment could haunt you for life," Ali Smith warned in the Times Literary Supplement), JM Coetzee's Summertime ("Coetzee is back on form as the world's best novelist in English," Nicholas Shakespeare declared in the Daily Telegraph) and AS Byatt's The Children's Book ("Easily the best thing Byatt has written since Possession," Peter Kemp wrote in the Sunday Times). Robert Harris's Lustrum is dedicated to Peter Mandelson, who claimed it as his book of the year in the New Statesman. "You will not need to be a political animal to enjoy his vivid reconstruction of life at the top in ancient Rome," observed the Prince of Darkness.

"The most bracing read was The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1929–1940," Seamus Heaney declared in the Times Literary Supplement, "a portrait of the Dubliner as a young European with a hard gemlike gift for language, learning and mockery." "Seamus Heaney has released a Collected Poems, reading each of his 12 collections on a series of CDs," Paul Batchelor recommended in the Times. "After countless critical appraisals, it is wonderful to be sent back to the poems by the man himself." "The single piece of literature that affected me most was Carol Ann Duffy's 'Last Post', marking the deaths of WWI veterans," Ian Hislop said in the Daily Telegraph. "When she became poet laureate some doubted whether 'public poetry' was possible any more. When I heard this poem read at Westminster Abbey, I knew they were wrong." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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