Eclectic collection

From bling kings to Olympic rings, YDL members toured the vaults of Britain’s vast Government Art Collection.

What you put on your walls says a lot about who you are. A small historical portrait hangs on the wall in the office of Simon Fraser, the Permanent Under Secretary of the Foreign Office. It is of the wise Sir Henry Wotton, King James I’s Ambassador to Venice – and a wit, famous for saying that an ambassador “was an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.” Written in its original Latin, the word “lie” was deliberately ambiguous, meaning “to reside” and to obfuscate the truth.

The art on the walls of British embassies and government offices speak volumes about Britain, its culture, its values, its relations with other countries. The works belong to the Government Art Collection, the largest and most dispersed art collection in the world.

Conversation pieces
YDL members saw rack upon rack of art stored in the GAC vaults – but two thirds of the collection are displayed in some 400 government buildings, with works ranging from sombre 16th century historical portraits of kings and queens to a witty contemporary work by Stephen Farthing, titled Bling! Henry.

This faceless but instantly recognisable King Henry VIII bedecked in ‘bling’ Tudor jewels greets visitors to Prime Minister Cameron at 10 Downing Street.

It’s an ironic work that pokes fun at OTT pomp, a reminder to guests of the Prime Minister that Brits are famous for their humour, self-mocking and irony.

“Art is a conversation piece, it can be an ice-breaker,” says Penny Johnson, the curator of the GAC, whose job it is to lead the team that looks after the valuable collection (nobody knows how much the collection is actually worth because the collection has never been officially valued).

Her small (and shrinking) team of 14 also benefits from the collective knowledge of an advisory board, comprising the directors of Britain’s premier galleries, who help them decide what to acquire or commission.

British art is often ironic and visitors to 10 Downing Street can smile at Stephen Farthing’s Bling! Henry, an alternative portrait of Henry VIII

Humble beginnings
Today the collection is an advert for British art, but the GAC’s beginnings in 1898 were rather more humble, says Johnson. “Instead of fixing cracks, the Office of Works took the view that it was much cheaper to cover them up with a few paintings.”

British diplomats drawn from the wealthy landed gentry would bring their own art, but as the diplomatic corps professionalised, drawing talent from all the classes, an alternative solution was needed.

Serious acquisition started in the 1930s, when Mussolini sparked an “arts race” filling Italian missions abroad with works of art that was the envy of all. Naturally the Brits had to keep up, and so the collection grew to its present-day size of some 13,500 works.

What the walls say
Nowadays, every time a new government minister or senior official is appointed they are invited down to the GAC vaults near Tottenham Court Road to pick out some art for their new office.

“Changing the art is a visible way to signify change,” says Johnson, who had around 50 ministers in the vaults browsing the collection after the reshuffle last autumn.

Officials like to pick art that means something to them or has a connection to the work they do. It’s no surprise, then, that when a portrait of the shadowy John Thurloe, spymaster to Oliver Cromwell, by Thomas Ross, was tracked down by the GAC about four years ago it was snapped up by the head of MI6. Now it hangs in the Cabinet Office.

Ambassadors and High Commissioners, however, aren’t always afforded the privilege of choosing their art because of the cost of transportation, but in the more important posts they are sometimes offered the opportunity, especially if a re-hang is planned to refresh the display in the Embassy.

Resonances and connections
Works selected at Embassies are selected to have “resonances” with their location, whether historical or architectural, says Johnson. For instance, in Athens is a portrait of the poet Lord Byron, who was a champion of Greek independence.

A highlight of the collection at the British Embassy in Cairo is the distinctive geometric stripes of Bridget Riley. Travelling to Egypt in the 1970s, the artist was impressed with how the ancient Egyptians painted their tombs using only five colours.

This striking combination she replicated in a work, Reflection, which usually hangs in the Embassy but diplomats can see it on display in the Ulster Museum of Belfast along with more than 200 other works in the first-ever exhibition of the GAC collection in its 118-year history. Also in the exhibition is a dashing portrait of Lord Byron. It is usually on display in Athens as Byron was a vocal champion of Greek Independence

Meanwhile, in the British Ambassador to France’s stately residence in Rue de Faubourg St Honoré a grand portrait of Charles Stuart, the first Baron Stuart de Rothsay, looks very at home.

An Ambassador to Moscow and a negotiator of the treaty granting Brazil independence from Portugal, De Rothsay was perhaps most famous for being twice Ambassador to Paris in the 19th century.

It came into GAC hands quite by chance. In 1998 an art dealer in New York unearthed the portrait in a contents sale of a hotel and noticed the ambassadorial insignia. The GAC did not hesitate to acquire it and reunite the Baron with his wife and two daughters whose portraits already adorned the Residence walls.

Shock of the new
New British embassies and Residences are an ideal opportunity to showcase contemporary British art – even video installations, which are on display in the new Residence in Khartoum. The use of light, or symbols of light is a common theme.

In Sri Lanka, David Batchelor’s colourful light assembly works well with the modern space, while in Moscow, the GAC commissioned Michael Craig-Martin to paint a piece to fit a tall, narrow piece of wall in the new building.

The result was one of Craig-Martin’s trademark stylised drawings of a torch, titled Lighthouse. “In a sense this piece symbolises diplomacy and how diplomats illuminate the way,” explains Johnson.

Ringing the changes
New works were also commissioned for Berlin, Doha and Madrid in the ‘golden age’ in the early 2000s when there was money to spend. But in these austere times, a moratorium has been in place since 2011 on all acquisitions and commissions.

Instead the GAC has to get by on a budget of just £351,000 for the painstaking conservation and transportation of these valuable works. (YDL members were shown various clever techniques, such as Tropicalisation, invented by GAC conservators to protect the art from the humidity and insects of tropical climes).

The 2012 Olympics offered a welcome, opportunity to boost the collection. Twelve of Britain’s finest artists – including celebrated Howard Hodgkin, Turner Prize winners Chris Ofili and Rachel Whiteread and Young British Artist (YBA) enfant terrible Tracey Emin – were invited to produce poster art for the 2012 Olympics. Prints were on display at the British Business Embassy in Lancaster House, and were seen by statesmen and on television screens around the world.

The eye-catching Olympic collection has a definite ‘ring’ to it: that Britain’s creative industries are alive and well.

A rescued portrait of Charles Stuart, the first Baron Stuart de Rothsay by Sir George Hayter is in Paris where he twice served as ambassador

FCO Permanent Under Secretary Simon Fraser chose to decorate his
office with a 17th century portrait of Sir Henry Wotton (pictured left), who defined an ambassador as “an honest man sent to lie abroad for
the good of his country…”


Revealed: Government Art Collection is on at the Ulster Museum, Belfast, until 9 June

British artists were invited to create posters inspired by the Olympics and Paralympics that were on display at British Business Embassy at Lancaster House, including Rachel Whiteread’s LOndOn Olympus (above) and Chris Ofili’s For The Unknown Runner (below).


New ministers and top officials can select art for their offices. The head of MI6 chose Thomas Ross’s portrait of John Thurlo

Works of art displayed in diplomatic missions are chosen for their historical connections. In Moscow Derek Boshier’s I Wonder What My Heroes Think Of The Space Race features Yuri Gagarin floating in space with Lincoln and Buddy Holly

Bridget Riley’s travels to Egypt inspired Reflection displayed in the British Embassy in Cairo

A portrait of Lord Byron who fought for Greece’s independence, is in Athens

Contemporary art fits well in new embassies, such as the light sculpture Walldella VI by David Batchelor, on display in the modern British High Commission in Sri Lanka

Michael Craig-Martin’s Lighthouse symbolises diplomacy illuminating the way in the contemporary British Embassy in Moscow