History of the Collection

Art is one way of remembering Britain’s long-standing historical relationships with other nations.

a textile work on the wall

Time-Zones by John Dugger, Felt wall banner, 1986 © John Dugger / image: Crown Copyright

As Britain shifted away from conflict to renegotiate its relationships with others in the postwar era, soft power and cultural diplomacy became increasingly important national and political expressions. Today, a thoughtful and strategic display of art in a government building or an embassy is a powerful medium for encouraging conversation and debate, and identifying and celebrating shared human experiences.

painting of a man, head turned to the left, in Tudor costume

Anglo-Flemish School, King Henry VIII, c.1527-1550 © image: Crown Copyright

Image of a headless King Henry VIII wearing decorative costume

Stephen Farthing, ‘Bling! Henry’, 2007 © Stephen Farthing

Representations of historic figures, once reflecting the formal stature and status of monarchs, used today as a playful means of depicting power and status, in Stephen Farthing’s painting, Bling! Henry.

How has this unusual Collection evolved?

Discover a story about British society, its artistic tastes and its changing place in the world.

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The Origins of the Collection

The Government Art Collection dates back to 1899 when a few portraits and landscapes were bought as an economical way of sprucing up tired-looking government rooms in Whitehall.

interior of an grand room in an embassy

From Decoration to Diplomacy

Images of British monarchs and famous figures, it was felt, brought a sense of stature to entrance halls and state rooms. The presence of works like these in embassies, started to raise an awareness of the powerful cultural diplomatic role that art could play.

interior room showing a family dining

A new demand for art

The social background of ministers and ambassadors, rising up the ranks of Britains diplomatic workforce began to change after the First World War. Fewer appointees had access to personal art collections this led to a lack of art in Britain's embassy buildings overseas, which became increasingly acknowledged.

room with two portraits on the walls

Growing the Collection

By the 1930s, diplomats and officials had become accustomed to working alongside historical artworks from the Collection. It was clear that the art had an impact on how the embassy buildings were experienced by visitors.

interior of a bomb damaged room

Battlefields of Britain

During the Second World War, the funding and provision of art for government buildings and embassies was paused. A small number of works were lost, damaged or destroyed as a result of the hostilities. One exception was Battlefields of Britain by Christopher R. W. Nevinson.

a man smoking a pipe at a desk in an office

Changing art for a changing Britain

The mood of post-war Britain was reflected in some of the new works in the collection displayed in the 1950s and 1960s at 10 Downing Street.

street sign

A Showcase for Art

Keen to champion Britain’s position in the world, Margaret Thatcher saw the potential of 10 Downing Street as a place to showcase art, and took an active interest in new displays.

two leaders making a speech

Portraiture

From its informal foundation by ministerial memo back in 1898, historical portraits have formed some of the first purchases of the Collection and they continue to do so today.

An atrium showing two works of art

A new identity to meet the world

Moving away from its imperial past and engaging with a new postwar world order, Britain began building and shaping a new identity at home and abroad.

three people in front of a painting

Collecting for the future

Adapting and reflecting the world around it, the ambition of the Collection is to continue to challenge and acknowledge its historical roots. New acquisitions are considered by subject, theme or an artist’s personal experience, all of which resonate with different aspects of contemporary British society