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Highlights from the UK Government Art Collection

— July 2011

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Bob and Roberta Smith,  Peas Are The New Beans (Selected by Lord Boateng)

Rosalind Ormiston sees a landmark exhibition and reads all about this hitherto hidden collection

The UK Government Art Collection (GAC) is an assortment of mainly British art purchased over a period of 113 years to promote the UK through a visual reflection of its history and culture. The Collection is housed in over 400 embassies, government buildings, and residences worldwide. At any time, two-thirds of the Collection is on display with the rest under conservation or in storage. There are around 13,500 works. The list of artists is wonderfully diverse, from William Hogarth to Vanessa Bell, to Jane and Louise Wilson, and reflecting tastes over a century of collecting.

The rich diversity of art, dating from the 16th century to the present day, was built up through the expertise of GAC directors. There are some surprising gaps in the catalogue: for example, no works by J.M.W. Turner or David Hockney. This may reflect the choices of previous directors or simply a lack of funds. In the present financial situation it comes as little surprise that there is no budget this financial year or next. For 2013/14 and 2014/15, the acquisitions budget will be around £100,000, which would not buy a major work of art today

The success of the GAC may lie in its ability to purchase works by new artists whilst their art is still affordable, even if the public have yet to be comfortable with their choice. Sixty years ago the purchase of Cecil Stephenson’s abstract artwork Painting: Design for the Festival of Britain (1950) (currently on view in the Whitechapel Gallery), was possibly considered an avant-garde choice. Today it is valued as a visual reflection of a particular moment in Britain’s history.  What would public reaction be to some of the 21st century artworks now in the GAC?

For the first time since its inception in 1898 a selection of art works from this remarkable collection is on public display. At the Whitechapel Gallery in London a year-long exhibition of five consecutive displays will showcase paintings, drawings, sculpture and photography from the Collection’s impressive catalogue. In late 2012 and 2013 the exhibition will go on tour, to Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, and to Ulster Museum, Belfast.

To kick-start the first Whitechapel display, ‘Government Art Collection: At Work’, 25 works have been chosen by seven guest selectors, each choosing three or four works. Making the team are Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries; Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister; the Prime Minister’s wife, Samantha Cameron; former Chief Secretaries of State Lord Boateng and Lord Mandelson; Dame Anne Pringle, British Ambassador to Moscow since 2008; and Sir John Sawyers, Chief of the Intelligence Service since 2009. The choice of works is a mainly modern and contemporary, including artists Bridget Riley, Osmund Caine, Edward Burra and Claude Heath. Ed Vaizey has chosen two monoprints by Tracey Emin, Still Love You Margate and Margate 1 Sand (2006), as a reminder of his own childhood holidays in Margate with his aunt and uncle. His other choice is Michael Landy’s compulsive-to-read Compulsive Obsession (2002). Nick Clegg has opted for three vastly different works: Tea (1970–1),by David Tindle; Zarina Bhimji’s atmospheric Howling like Dogs, I Swallowed Solid Air (1998–2003); and David Dawson’s C-type photograph,Lucian Freud Painting the Queen (2001), which reveals a private moment captured during the portrait sitting. This photograph was the also the choice of Lord Mandelson when he was Secretary of State. Another of Lord Mandelson’s choices here is a striking oil-on-panel portrait Queen Elizabeth I (c. 1585–95) by an anonymous artist.

This ‘old master’ type of painting is perhaps what one would expect to be in the GAC, such as the large oil paintings Frederick V, King of Bohemia, and its companion painting Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia Winter Queen, both painted c.1630 by Gerrit van Honthorst (1592–1656). On display here, they were chosen by Dame Anne Pringle during her time as British Ambassador to Prague, to hang in the Residence there. Her other choices are 20th-century works. In 2010, as the British Ambassador to Moscow, she chose to install a challenging work by Derek Boshier, I Wonder What My Heroes Think of the Space Race, 1960, reference to the space flight on 12 April 1961 by the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. It includes depictions of ‘tragic heroes’ who died prematurely. It is a work that could not have been displayed in Moscow at the time it was created, during the cold war. Now it is an ice-breaker in conversations with visiting foreign dignitaries.

The added dimension to this exhibition is the fascinating backdrop of government and embassy life glimpsed though the selectors’ choice of artworks. Do the artworks reflect their personality or their job? That remains for the exhibition visitor to decide. A glance at what John Sawyer, currently Chief of the Intelligence Service, chooses to hang on his office walls must intrigue his staff and visitors. They include the rather unsettling In the Cellar Mirror (1971) by Norman Blamey, and an intriguing door sculpture mounted sideways on the wall, The Doors (LA Woman), 2005, by the Glaswegian artist Jim Lambie. Sawyer says its ‘my most radical choice. I selected it for the Residence in New York when I was Ambassador to the United Nations [2007-09]. We had a steady stream of international and American visitors and I told the story of the sculpture to all and sundry’. From Lord Boateng’s selection it looks as though he matched artworks to his jobs in government. As Chief Secretary to HM Treasury (2002–05), he chose to hang Bob and Roberta Smith’s Peas are the New Beans in his waiting room. In his own words it was ‘the most useful piece of art I ever chose...’ He saw it as a humorous dig at the bean counters, casting himself at that time as ‘bean counter in chief’.

It is probably safe to say that many visitors to the exhibition will be interested in Samantha Cameron’s choice of four works taken from the many on display in 10 Downing Street. Her choice of L.S. Lowry’s Lancashire Fair: Good Friday, Daisy Nook (1946), has been a popular one in government circles since it was purchased in 1947 from the Leicester Galleries in London for £120. In that year it was placed in government offices, moving on to the Foreign Office in 1956, and then on to 10 Downing Street in 1965. Her other choices include a small bronze sculpture Homme Libellule II (1965) by Elisabeth Frink, and a wall relief in stainless steel, Formica and wood, White Diagonal, (1963) by Mary Martin.

Between Gallery 8 and Gallery 7 a large wall map of the world pinpoints the cities where the Collection is displayed. Nearby, hangs William Marlow’sView of Blackfriars Bridge (c.1775), also chosen by Samantha Cameron.

The GAC was in the news earlier this year following the burning of the UK Ambassador’s residence in Tripoli, in April. The building had been evacuated earlier in the year when hostilities surfaced but the 13 GAC works, which dated from the 17th to 20th centuries, were too large to remove. There is the possibility, however, that they may have been looted prior to the fire so there is some hope that they may turn up. The three most valuable are William Stratton, Head Keeper to Sir John Cope of Bramshill Park, Hampshire (c.1840) by Edmund Havell, Harrier Killing a Bittern (1797) by Philip Renaigle, and Mountainous Landscape with Travellers, in the style of Salvator Rosa.

In an informative and readable book, Art, Power, Diplomacy: Government Art Collection The Untold Story by Penny Johnson et al. (Scala 2011, £20), published to coincide with this first public loan of GAC artworks, several authors discuss its history and representative role for British art and culture. The current director, Penny Johnson, discusses her own role and the art of choosing works for the GAC, and for ministers. She states that the busiest time is after the election of a new government. 

In May 2010, after the election of the UK’s current Coalition government,  she worked with 50 ministers over three months to make selections. ‘People are always intrigued to know which works are on ministers’ walls and in broad terms about 50 per cent of the ministers decide on modern/contemporary art, 25 per cent historical, and 25 per cent on a mix of both’. Her correspondence with political figures illuminates the reasons why ministers choose the works on their walls. She reveals that at 10 Downing Street the choice of artwork was left to the Collection curators and the Prime Minister’s advisers, which perhaps included Samantha Cameron.

The book is richly illustrated with archive photographs taken in embassies and residences around the world, and reproductions of the art works. One revelatory set of photographs shows before-and-after views of the Glazed Gallery, Ambassador’s Residence, Paris, which was given a makeover from traditional to modern art with astonishing results. A behind-the-scenes account by Richard Dorment, art critic of the Daily Telegraph, recalls the years 1995–2005 when he served on the GAC’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art. In the book he discusses how, during his years on the board, he witnessed a ‘profound shift in British attitudes towards the visual arts which were nowhere more visible than in the workings of the Government Art Collection’. It’s a good read.

In another chapter, Cornelia Parker sheds light on an artist’s view of the GAC.

The final chapter is perhaps the most fascinating in its discussion of the GAC’s role in commissioning new works. Adrian George explains how, from the onset of the Second World War, Kenneth Clark, then director of the National Gallery, London, made a concerted effort to keep British artists in work, ‘to prevent them from being killed’. By 1945 there were 5,570 works, many going to museums, some of them now in the GAC today. Interesting anecdotes include L.S.Lowry’s less-than-successful dialogue with the Ministry of Works when commissioned to be an official Coronation artist in 1953.

The range of the Collection means that there is something in the exhibitions and the book for everyone.


Rosalind Ormiston
Independent art historian

Media credit: Copyright line: © Bob and Roberta Smith / courtesy of the UK Government Art Collection

Background info

In the UK, the GAC is not the only government organisation with a budget to make art acquisitions. There are also the Arts Council and the British Council. All are currently run as separate groups, which if amalgamated, would create a collection of around 30,000 works. The Arts Council, the British Council and the Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) are reviewing their art collections, looking at cost savings but not amalgamation, for each has a separate function. The Arts Council Collection is the nation’s loan collection of modern and contemporary art with a holding of approximately 8,000 works dating from the 1940s to the present day. The aim of the British Council Collection is to ‘build trust and promote closer ties between Britain and other countries’ through international exhibitions of contemporary art. Its collection of over 8,000 works dates from the 20th century to the present day. The directors of the three organisations regularly meet to advance cost saving and to combine opportunities to promote the UK. 

Editor's notes

All quotations in this article are taken from Art, Power, Diplomacy: Government Art Collection The Untold Story by Penny Johnson et al. (Scala 2011).

‘Government Art Collection: At Work’ is at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, 3 June–4 September 2011. Free admission. Supported by Hiscox.
In late 2012 and 2013 the exhibition will go on tour, to Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, and to Ulster Museum, Belfast.
After the current display reaches the end of its run on 4 September 2011, there will be two further displays. The artist Cornelia Parker presents her personal choice from the Collection (16 September–4 December 2011), followed by Simon Schama’s selection highlighting the role of the Collection in cultural diplomacy (16 December 2011–26 February 2012).

Talks in July
For those interested to learn more about the Government Art Collection the Whitechapel Gallery is holding a series of talks during July and is also giving a chance to go behind the scenes at the GAC, in Queen’s Yard, Tottenham Court Road, London, on Tuesday, 5 July and 2 August, 2011. Some talks, and the tours, are free but need to be booked through the Whitechapel gallery. Go to for more information and to book.

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