A Working Collection

Imagine if the Government Art Collection was a person. Its approach and way of working is close to that of a diplomat or ambassador. Frequently on the move, working hard to make links between the UK and other countries, this collection of historic, modern and contemporary art champions British art and culture and is seen by hundreds of thousands of people at government locations across six continents.

installing a sculpture in a garden

Installing 'Hollow Form with Inner Form' a bronze sculpture by Barbara Hepworth in the garden of 10 Downing Street, London © Crown Copyright

Working around the World

The global flow of the Government Art Collection means that around two-thirds of its works are on show at any one time. Visitors engage with artworks at around 370 government buildings around the world, while visitors to temporary exhibitions in museums and galleries in the UK and abroad often discover works on loan from the Collection. In 2019, as part of Ways of Seeing, a collaborative public project with Waltham Forest Borough of Culture, artworks were displayed in selected schools and libraries, in a shopping mall, a sports centre and even a horse riding centre!

 

  • Art handling technicians hanging Lower Mall, Hammersmith a painting by Charles Sims in the Ambassador's residence, Dhaka, Banagladesh © Crown Copyright

  • GAC works of art are shown being unloaded outside the British Ambassador's residence in Muscat, Oman. © Crown Copyright

  • A portrait of King George V by Sir Samuel Luke Fildes (after) is shown being hung in the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, London © Crown Copyright

  • Art technicians installing a print containing the text COURAGE INSPIRATION SWEAT LOVE THE PARALYMPICS 2012

    Installing 'Love', a London 2012 print by Bob and Roberta Smith at Lammas School, London © Thierry Bal

    Not just a pretty picture

    How does the Government Art Collection select artworks for display? Our curatorial team strategically plan the selection and location of every proposed artwork, deciding where its display makes the best impact in a space, both visually and contextually. Who will be working near to it every day? Who visits the space? How can the artwork enhance or support the government or diplomatic activity that happens in the immediate environment? What practical issues of the care and maintenance of the work do local staff need to be aware of?

    When new ministers start or ambassadors come into post, we ask them for a steer, for instance, if a time period or genre of art interests them. We look at areas of policy that ministers are responsible for and identify related works. When David Gauke became Chief Secretary to the Treasury between 2016–2017, one of the works selected for his office was a 17th-century portrait of Richard Weston, 1st Earl of Portland (1577-1635) diplomat, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord High Treasurer,  after Sir Anthony van Dyck.

    For ambassadors setting off for new diplomatic posts abroad, we look for artworks that might enhance the links between the UK and another country, or simply represent excellent examples of British art.

    “What our visitors don’t expect is that pride of place in the Victorian drawing room goes to Bridget Riley’s brilliant ‘Reflection’: a work that has a direct connection to Egypt, because its colours were inspired by a journey that the artist made to Upper Egypt.”

    British Ambassador Geoffrey Adams describing in 2019, visitors’ impressions of encountering Bridget Riley’s work at the British Embassy, Cairo.

    interior of an embassy

    Bridget Riley’s painting, Reflection in the British Ambassador’s Residence, Cairo © Crown Copyright

    Once a display is agreed, our curators research each work to produce engaging interpretative texts that invite and encourage everyone working in, living in or visiting the building to get closer to the works on display. Unlike museum spaces, these buildings are focused on the business of government and diplomacy. They do not have front-of-house or education staff available to engage directly with visitors, sharing stories and information about the artworks. For this reason, the interpretation we provide plays an important part in ensuring that all staff, from ministers and ambassadors to facility managers, have the confidence to share knowledge with visitors on why artworks are on display, or how an artist is linked to the country in which their work is shown. Interpretation equips staff to take on the role of informal ‘art ambassadors’, advocating for the Collection and sparking public interest to create stimulating environments for the business of government.

    Artworks relate to locations in different ways. This might be through a direct link between a work and a well-known historical figure such as Lord Byron whose striking portrait by Thomas Phillips has been on display almost continuously in the British Residence in Athens.

    The ultimate figure of British Romanticism, a renowned poet inspired by ‘the air of Greece’, and a revolutionary, Byron was only 25 when he sat for this painting. Referring to this portrait, the British Ambassador to Athens, Kate Smith commented in 2019:

    “my absolute favourite must be the 1813 portrait of the great Philhellene and poet, Lord Byron, by Thomas Phillips RA which has pride of place in the Ballroom. Byron is a national hero of the Greek War of Independence and is revered in Greece for his contribution to the country’s liberation from the Ottoman yoke as no other foreigner is. There are statues of him in many parts of Greece, and Byron is a common boy’s name, a suburb of Athens, a school and a football team! His image is instantly recognisable to our visitors when they look up at this magnificent portrait of him in his Suliot costume. The fact that we have the original in the Residence is a cause of great excitement for all Greek visitors – who invariably ask to be photographed in front of the painting. A wonderful reminder of a point in Greek history where Britain played a decisive, positive and inspirational role”.

    interior showing a painting on a wall

    Interior of Athens Ambassador’s residence showing the portrait of George Gordon Noel Byron, 6th Baron Byron (1788-1824) poet by Thomas Phillips © Crown Copyright

    An artwork often has an architectural resonance. A good example is Lighthouse, a monumental painting by Michael Craig-Martin of over five metres high that greets visitors to the entrance hall of the British Embassy in Moscow. This work was one of three works commissioned by the Government Art Collection on behalf of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1999 for the new embassy.

    interior of an embassy

    Lighthouse, by Michael Craig-Martin on display in the British Embassy, Moscow © Crown Copyright

    Very occasionally, artworks hold a specific personal resonance to a minister or ambassador as they come into their new role. In 2003, Estelle Morris, the Labour MP (today Baroness Morris of Yardley) was appointed Minister of Arts. Having grown up in Greater Manchester, she was keen to discover if the Government Art Collection could provide an industrial landscape painting by Manchester-born artist L.S. Lowry for her new ministerial office. Shortly afterwards, Lowry’s 1946 painting, Lancashire Fair, Good Friday, Daisy Nook became available. Talking about this work in 2005 to BBC journalist, Mark Whittaker, Morris recounted:

    “And what’s special about that, that’s Daisy Nook Fair, Easter Fair, and it’s about a mile from where I was born. It’s where my mum and dad used to do a bit of their courting when they were young and Daisy Nook Easter Fair is one of those phrases from my youth. To have an original Lowry on the wall is one thing, to have a Lowry that relates to somewhere where you were actually born and brought up, I think people can imagine how special that is.”

    The Collection is in a unique position to make art available to a variety of audiences as an everyday encounter in a non-gallery environment.

    Crowd scene of people at a funfair

    Laurence Stephen Lowry, Lancashire Fair: Good Friday, Daisy Nook, 1946 / © The Estate of L.S. Lowry. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2016

    Making a first impression

    A painting or sculpture displayed in an entrance makes that important first impression to the many visitors who walk through the door of a government or embassy building. Artworks can also spark conversations between ambassadors and ministers and their visitors, finding common ground with others, or a starting point to help smooth over potentially challenging conversations. In any situation or space, art triggers emotions or responses which in these particular official buildings, are pivotal in influencing people and situations.

    sculpture on display in an entrance hall

    UW84DC#7 by Richard Deacon was formerly on display in the entrance to the Cabinet Office, Whitehall © Crown Copyright

    Art which connects us

    Often art can be a reminder of our common human experiences. The right artworks, sensitively placed, can help connect a variety of visitors with history, with ideas and with alternative points of view

    A coherent display of works from the collection can help visitors to UK government buildings abroad, gain a sense of Britain through their surroundings. Sometimes a particular government building or working environment, such as a key Embassy building overseas or Number 10 Downing Street at home, presents a high profile and influential place to promote British Art and culture to the world.

    interior of a room

    Fantôme Créole Series (Papillon no. 1) a dyptych by Issac Julien on display in 10 Downing Street © Crown Copyright

    A Collection on the move

    Works from the Collection are displayed in hundreds of buildings in nearly every capital city across the world and although many stay in the same location for a number of years we also have a great number of artworks on the move.

    Our collections staff move a few thousand artworks each year – some are returning to the UK for conservation work, some may be on their way to a new building or embassy as part of a refresh of the art on display and some may be being loaned to a museum or gallery.

    The logistics and organisation of the moves, as well as the conservation required to maintain all the works in their various locations, form a significant part of the Collection’s operation.

    interior of an art store with two people checking works of art

    GAC staff checking and preparing to move works of art © Crown Copyright