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