Art has facilitated diplomacy since the time of the pharoahs. Then, painters were commissioned to decorate tombs with images of the gods their residents needed to appease en route to the other side. In comparison, the requirement that the British government’s art collection (GAC) “promote Britain and its artistic achievements” seems less than demanding. Why then has it taken until now for this century-old cache of art, paid for by British taxpayers, to reach a wider audience than the chosen few who enter the buildings – embassies, consul residencies, ministries – for which it was bought?
When I put the question to GAC director Penny Johnson, the blonde, softly-spoken historian of British art replies: “Finding the right venue [was the issue] actually.”
Given that the GAC has been in existence for 113 years, this response is not convincing. More probable is that the logistics of curating what now amount to 13,500 works in more than 400 buildings in 131 countries on a shoestring annual budget – currently £351,000 ($571,000) – left few resources for all but urgent management.
Enter Whitechapel Gallery director Iwona Blazwick. On the GAC’s acquisitions committee, she perceived that it would make a perfect chapter in a cycle of exhibitions at the Whitechapel devoted to art collections. The result is a five-part show which kicked off in June with At Work – a selection of 70 pieces chosen by members of the political establishment, including the prime minister’s wife, Samantha Cameron, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg and Lord Mandelson. Of the four parts which follow, three will be selected by the artist Cornelia Parker, the critic Simon Schama, and the staff of 10 Downing Street (choosing their favourite works) respectively, while the final show will be devoted to GAC commissions, including a new work, as part of the cultural olympiad in the summer of 2012.
With visitor numbers tipping 60,000, the Whitechapel’s show is a remarkable reversal for GAC, whose watchword has always been discretion. The building where I meet Johnson, and which houses those works not out on display, is hidden down an alley off London’s Tottenham Court Road. Although the collection has been accessible online since 2001, public visits to the site are restricted to three evenings a month. That they are fully booked until 2013 testifies to the level of interest.
Conscious that her role has given her both insight into our politicians’ cultural predilections and not a little influence, Johnson is guarded (a press officer records our conversation and at one point Johnson retracts a statement deemed contentious). Nevertheless, she makes it clear that Tony Blair owes the GAC some credit for his reputation as ringmaster of the Cool Britannia era. “That was our suggestion,” she recalls of the display at Downing Street that saw works by Anish Kapoor, Sean Scully, Mark Francis and Thérèse Oulton replace the portraits of dead white males favoured by Mrs Thatcher. However, she also pays tribute to John Major’s genuine enthusiasm for the modern, which resulted in works by Bridget Riley and Howard Hodgkin at Number 10.
Such backstage manoeuvres have been the hallmark of the GAC since its inception in 1898, when parliament decided that it would be less expensive to adorn Whitehall’s walls with paintings than redecorate from scratch. Ironically the current acquisitions budget is even less than the original, which barely stretched to three figures: a victim of spending cuts, the GAC has this year been stripped of every penny of an annual purse that had just climbed to £200,000.
In the 1930s, when the works started to be displayed overseas, they truly became ambassadors for their country. Chosen, as Johnson has written in a new book about the collection, to “reflect connections between the artist or subject and the host country which illuminate shared historical reflections and cultural links”, this is art that essentially reflects a nation’s fantasy of itself.
It is also a window on how that fantasy has changed. In Cairo, for example, the British embassy once thought it appropriate to greet Egyptian guests with an oil painting of a Victorian naval officer garbed in opulent Arab dress. More recently, such naive orientalism has been countered by an abstract painting of narrow stripes by Bridget Riley, whose restrained colours were inspired by her visit to ancient Egyptian tombs. Empathic rather than exoticising, it is an example of a world where the values of post-colonialism have replaced those of imperialism.
The process is not entirely linear. Not only does the turbanned seaman remain but one recent ambassador struggled to accept the Bridget Riley. “I tried to explain ... that it was very important it was there,” recalls Johnson.
The tale typifies tensions that can arise between the collection’s curators and its temporary custodians. A minister who browses the catalogue and dreams, say, of a Patrick Heron abstract above his desk is likely to be disappointed. “It’s not an Argos catalogue!” observes Johnson crisply, making it clear that she much prefers it if the eventual recipients allow her to draw up a shortlist, since the majority of works are out on display elsewhere.
Bidding me imagine myself as a new incumbent to a foreign post, she leads me down to “the racking area” – a well-lit warehouse-like space where hundreds of artworks are stored on sliding panels. As she leads me through a labyrinth of British art, from an exquisite 18th-century portrait of a lady to an ambiguous image of a western woman alone in a Chinese restaurant by contemporary photographer Hannah Starkey, I feel as desirous as a child in a toy shop. Yet Johnson says that not every politician takes the opportunity to visit.
David Cameron, for example, has been too busy to change any art at Number 10. George Osborne, on the other hand, is the first chancellor ever to come down in person. (He chose Grayson Perry’s “Print for a Politician”, a Darger-like fantasy that celebrates human difference.)
Pretending that I am the new consul in San Francisco, Johnson pulls out a rack bearing a print by John Piper of St Mary’s Paddington, a fine neo-Gothic church. “I might say ... this particular building resonates with the art and crafts building you happen to be living in [in San Francisco] and you can talk about the connection,” she explains, in a reminder that for diplomats, art can be a vital ice-breaker in sticky situations.
While the Piper, though quirky and appealing, is unlikely to offend any cultural sensibilities, the works on show at the Whitechapel are more provocative. In part, they are made compelling because of their selectors.
Thus we discover that both Peter Mandelson and Nick Clegg opted for a photograph by David Dawson of Lucian Freud painting his much-criticised portrait of the Queen. Mandelson also plumps for a 16th-century anonymous portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, her jewel-encrusted dress as vital as her face is wooden. Clegg’s choice, a photograph by Ugandan refugee Zarina Bhimji of fans abandoned in a warehouse, is an essay in postmodern abjection.
Thanks to Sir John Sawers, now chief of the Intelligence Service MI6, we have a magnificent 1971 portrait by Norman Blamey, “In the Cellar Mirror”, which shows a couple gazing at their reflection with postcards of artworks tucked into the mirror’s frame. Samantha Cameron, choosing from works already on display in Number 10, goes for a painting by LS Lowry of a country fair. As British high commissioner to South Africa, Paul Boateng called for Osmund Caine’s deeply ambiguous painting of second world war soldiers sharing a dormitory, the white men clothed while the black combatants are portrayed as muscular, Michelangelesque nudes.
There are few truly first-class pieces here. Only the Blamey, uniting clever ideas with complex brushwork, is a revelation. But the joy of this exhibition is the opportunity for speculation. What does Mandelson think he is saying about his attitude to the monarchy? Does Mrs Cameron love that Lowry, or does she think it politic? Clegg’s bid to claim the contemporary high ground has backfired, according to one retired school teacher visiting the show. “You wouldn’t want to sit in an office all day under that!”
Less ambiguous is the enthusiasm with which the British public – many of whom are several decades older than Whitechapel’s usual demographic – greeted the collection overall. As I explored the exhibits, time and again I heard spectators expressing their desire to see more of a collection in which they clearly felt they had a personal stake. Although the art may not be of the top rank, anyone who visits At Work will see a snapshot of Britain at its curious, cultured, critical best. Hats off to the Whitechapel Gallery for making this show happen and to the GAC for, albeit belatedly, consenting.