The art of government: what politicians’ paintings say about them

What politicians’ paintings say about them

19 June 2021

9:00 AM

19 June 2021

9:00 AM

On the walls of the Chancellor’s office hangs a print of Eric Ravilious’s lithograph ‘Working Controls while Submerged’ (1941). Two engineers in blue overalls heave the levers of a submarine. A third slumps asleep on a bench. An image, perhaps, of the ship of state, several hundred feet underwater, but by no means sunk yet. We might picture Rishi Sunak in the Treasury control room, changing the gears, working the pumps, keeping the country bumping along even at the bottom of the economic ocean.

Or perhaps Sunak looks at his four framed screen-prints by the artist Justine Smith — ‘Pound’, ‘Euro’, ‘Dollar’, ‘Yen’ — and thinks: if only it were so easy just to print money. Maybe he turns to the portraits of Disraeli and Gladstone (after Millais) and asks: ‘Well, chaps, what would you do?’


Eric Ravilious’s ‘Working controls while submerged’ (1941). Credit: Fry Art Gallery Society/ Bridgeman Images

A raid on the Government Art Collection is a perk of being a minister. Better than the car and driver, better than the polished red box. If I am ever appointed to one of the Great Offices of State — stranger things have happened to Spectator hacks — the first thing I’d do is furnish my office. A few Hogarth engravings, a set of David Jones’s ‘Ancient Mariner’ etchings, Cedric Morris’s ‘Irises and Tulips’, Edward Bawden’s ‘The Coal Exchange’… I’d have liked to nab Winifred Nicholson’s ‘Flower Piece’, if only Carrie hadn’t got there first.

A Freedom of Information request from James Heale, The Spectator’s diary editor, has lifted the little red velvet curtains on which works of art ministers have got from the vaults. Mr and Mrs Johnson are the most prolific borrowers, having signed out 44 worksfor the Prime Minister’s flat at No. 11. Their eclectic selection is of a piece with their Lulu Lytle interiors style — a bit of this, a bit of that, a busy mix, luxury clutter. There’s a smidge of a green and eco vibe, too, in Howard Hodgkin’s ‘Herb Garden’ and Jessica Dismorr’s ‘Landscape with Trees’. Meanwhile, Allen Jones’s ‘Hamlet’ lithograph, outrageously quilted and ruffed, should be a spur to Boris as he battles with his overdue Shakespeare book. If the muse deserts him, there are nine others on the wall. Joe Tilson’s aquatints of Calliope, Urania, Erato, Terpsichore, Polyhymnia, Thalia, Melpomene, Euterpe and Clio (rhetoric, astronomy, poetry, dance, geometry, comedy, tragedy, music and history) are an inspiration for speeches, columns, memoirs and diaries.

As for the Chancellor’s flat at No. 10, we may not know who designed the wallpaper — the people have a right to know! — but we can tell that Sunak is very much a Mid-Century Modern Man. Sunak has gone big on Barbara Hepworth with eight screen-prints of assorted abstract shapes and forms. (I can’t help seeing all those holes and voids as a metaphor for the national budget.) For relief and escapism there are Ivon Hitchens’s ‘Two Poppies on a Blue Table’, Graham Sutherland’s ‘Cornfield and Stone’ and Keith Vaughan’s ‘Rocky Landscape’. Antony Gormley’s aquatint ‘Untitled’ shows a lone figure pierced with myriad spikes like a martyred Saint Sebastian. A Chancellor bears many burdens. Then there’s Jake and Dinos Chapman’s screen-print ‘Double Deathshead’ which acts perhaps as a memento mori, a vanitas vanitatum, a check against too much ambition. (Stop me when I get too pseudy.)

The Government Art Collection, founded in 1899, is an often overlooked national treasure trove. The collection of more than 14,000 works is lent not only to ministers, but to embassies, cultural institutes, civic spaces and exhibitions, and it continues to grow. Recent acquisitions include prints by Yinka Shonibare (terrific) and Tacita Dean (tedious).

Some ministers defy expectations. Jacob Rees-Mogg, honourable member for the 18th century, is groovier than you might think. Alongside a painting after Van Dyck’s ‘King Charles I’ hang prints by the contemporary artists Holly Hendry, Eva Rothschild and Christiane Baumgartner. Really quite cool choices from the thoroughly modern Mogg.


Sam Rabin’s ‘The Prelude’ (purchased 1986). Credit: Estate of the artist/ Crown copyright, UK

Foreign Secretary and former university wrestler Dominic Raab has borrowed only one work: Sam Rabin’s wax crayon drawing ‘The Prelude’, a vertiginous ringside portrait of a wrestling-match master of ceremonies. While an art student at the Slade, Rabin moonlighted as a wrestler and as an amateur won a bronze medal at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. He starred as a court wrestler in the 1933 film The Private Life of Henry VIII and as a prize-fighter in the The Scarlet Pimpernel the following year. Raab’s Rabin has the ring of a truly personal choice. Financial Secretary to the Treasury Jesse Norman, who published a biography of Edmund Burke in 2013, has adopted a portrait of Burke after Joshua Reynolds.

Some civil servants dismiss the Department for Culture, Media and Sport as the ‘Ministry of Fun’ — a playpen for lightweights and pleasure seekers and men who never say no to a jolly. For their part, culture journalists complain that DCMS ministers rarely know their arts from their elbow. Secretary of State Oliver Dowden had a typical hiccup this week, proudly tweeting from the G7 Summit that the open-air Minack Theatre in Cornwall had been the recipient of Covid cash through the £2 billion Culture Recovery Fund. It hadn’t.

Still, Dowden wins points for borrowing works by women artists — Chantal Joffe’s ‘Red-Haired Woman in the Park’, Lubaina Himid’s ‘Le Rodeur: The Pulley’, Gillian Wearing’s maquette for her statue of Millicent Fawcett — and for his evident affection for Her Majesty the Queen. Dowden has borrowed both David Bailey’s smiling photo-portrait of the monarch and Charles Mozley’s 1953 coronation scene ‘The Procession in Whitehall’.

Michael Gove’s choices are mostly portraits of dead white statesmen — William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley; Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke; Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh and 2nd Marquess of Londonderry — with a bit of Bloomsbury ballast from Duncan Grant’s ‘The Downs Near Wilmington’.


(Clockwise from left) Eileen Cooper’s ‘Lemon Tree’ (2017) Credit: Eileen Cooper / Crown copyright, UK. Winifred Nicholson’s ‘Flower Piece’ (late 1920s) Credit: Winifred Nicholson trustees/ Crown copyright, UK. Justine Smith’s ‘Pound’ (2006) Credit: Justine Smith/ Crown copyright, UK

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson aligns himself with portraits of illustrious persons such as Sir Francis Drake, Sir Thomas More and Oliver Cromwell. Yes, I quite see it: strategy, intellect and zeal. Rebecca Pow at Defra plays on a fruit and flowers theme with Vanessa Bell’s ‘Asters and Hydrangeas’ and Eileen Cooper’s ‘Lemon Tree’.

One of the works that appealed to me from the Chancellor’s office was Chila Kumari Singh Burman’s ‘Bengal Tiger Van — Raspberry Ripples, Chila’s Dad selling ice-cream on Freshfield Beach, Merseyside 1976’. Inkjet printed on an enlarged £10 note, ‘Bengal Tiger Van’ shows holidaymakers queuing at an ice cream van with a stripy, cut-out tiger on the roof. This tiger was the symbol of Burman’s father’s ice cream business in 1960s Liverpool, at a time when many British Indians were in the ice cream game.

The print is embellished with crystals in sari-like patterns. It is both blingy and sepia-tinted. ‘Bengal Tiger Van’ happily captures the spirit of this staycation summer: days out, heaving beaches and well-behaved Great British queues. Buy a raspberry ripple, top up the Treasury pot.

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