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Culture & Press news – Embassy 32

The art of diplomacy

Visit any embassy chancery or ambassadorial residence and diplomats will tell you that the walls do speak. Portraits of national heroes, kings, queens and landscapes hanging on the walls all say volumes of the diplomatic ties between the embassy and its host country.

The British government’s own vast art collection is usually stored in secretive vaults but for the first time selected works have been put on display at the Whitechapel Gallery. Subtitled At Work, the exhibition explores how this diverse and fascinating collection of British art contributes to cultural diplomacy.

The Government Art Collection was started in 1898 and has a team of savvy curators who acquire or commission new works to add to the existing 13,500-strong collection. Newly-appointed ministers and ambassadors are able to visit the vaults and pick out works for their new offices or residences. Their choices are at once personal and public, revealing their own artistic tastes as well as the connection between the chosen art work and the work they do.

The first of five displays of the Government Art Collection takes a closer look at the selections of prominent politicians and diplomats, including Lord Boateng, former government minister and High Commissioner to South Africa; deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, Samantha Cameron, wife of the Prime Minister; former business secretary Lord Mandelson, Dame Anne Pringle, Britain’s first woman Ambassador to Moscow and former Ambassador to Prague; Sir John Sawers, Chief of the Intelligence Service and former UK Ambassador to the UN.

Almost more intriguing than the works themselves are the stories attached to them and reveal how art can fulfil an important diplomatic role, as Sir John Sawers remarked about one of his chosen works, Ben Nevis on Blue by Claude Heath.

“I recall a negotiation on Iran I chaired sitting under this picture,” he explained. “When the going got tough between the Americans, Europeans, Russians and Chinese, we took a break for tea and reflected on the art work. Agreement was reached an hour later.”

Sir John’s most radical choice, he says, is The Doors (LA Woman) by Glaswegian sculptor Jim Lambie which he selected for the Residence in New York when he was Ambassador to the United Nations.

“We had a steady stream of international and American visitors and I told the story of the sculpture to all and sundry,” he explained. “The Doors [the American rock band] took their name from Aldous Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception, the title of which was a reference to a William Blake quotation: ‘When the doors of perception are cleansed, things will appear to Man as they truly are ... infinite.’ A bit like the ambition of the UN itself...”

A witty addition comes from Dame Anne Pringle’s I wonder what my heroes think of the space race by Derek Boshier, normally on display in Moscow. The painting refers to the heroic flight of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin – the first person to enter space and orbit the Earth.

For the Residence in Prague she chose Gerrit van Honthorst’s painting of the Scottish princess Elizabeth Stuart who became Queen of Bohemia, albeit briefly. “I particularly like her portrait,” said Dame Anne, “both as a stunning painting and for its connection to Scotland, my native country.”

For his posting in South Africa, Lord Boateng chose Osmund Caine’s Spider Hutments, Mychett Barracks, Aldershot, 1940, an arresting image of soldiers of all races sharing a barracks during World War II.

“It’s a reminder, still necessary, that the war against Fascism in which Caine served was fought by soldiers of many races,” reflected Lord Boateng.

A visit to the exhibition is a must for any diplomat interested in the art of diplomacy.

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Osmund Caine
Spider Hutments, Mychett Barracks, 1940


Derek Boshier
I Wonder What My Heroes Think of the Space Race


Claude Heath
Ben Nevis on Blue, 2004

The Government Art Collection:
At Work (until 4 September), Whitechapel Gallery, 77-82 Whitechapel High Street, E1 7QX

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