History of the Collection

Art is one way of remembering Britain’s long-standing 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 way of encouraging conversation and debate, and identifying and celebrating our 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, are used today as a playful means of depicting power and status, as illustrated 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.


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 brought a sense of stature to entrance halls and state rooms and raised an awareness of the powerful cultural diplomatic role that art could play.

interior room showing a family dining

A new demand for art

Social changes after the First World War meant an unexpected and new demand for art in Britain's embassy buildings.

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, with one exception.

a man smoking a pipe at a desk in an office

Changing art for changing Britain

Find out how the mood of post-war Britain impacted on the Collection and how it changed the art displayed on the walls of Government offices.

two leaders making a speech


From its informal foundation by ministerial memo back in 1899, historical portraits formed some of the first purchases of the Collection and they continue to be acquired 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.

A neon version of the Government Art Collection logo, the white letters Gov Art Col separated by pink slashes

Collecting for the Future

Adapting and reflecting the world around it, this national collection has shifted from its original ‘decorative’ purpose in the 19th century to one with a more tangible, carefully curated approach.