History of the Collection
Art is one way of remembering Britain’s long-standing historical relationships with other nations.
The representation of historic figures, which reflects a formal stature and status of monarchs, has moved to a playful depiction of power and status, as illustrated in Stephen Farthing’s painting, Bling! Henry.
The Government Art Collection dates back to 1899 when a small number of portraits and landscapes were bought for government offices as an economical way of sprucing up tired-looking rooms in Whitehall.
Images of British monarchs and famous figures brought a sense of stature to entrance halls and state rooms. The presence of works like these in embassies, started to raise awareness of the powerful cultural diplomatic role that art could play.
The lack of art in embassy buildings was increasingly acknowledged after the First World War, during a period when the background of new ministers and ambassadors rising up through the ranks of Britain’s diplomatic workforce slowly started to change.
By the 1930s, diplomats and officials became accustomed to working alongside historical artworks from the Collection and it was clear that art in embassies had an impact on how these buildings were experienced by visitors.
The funding and provision of art for government buildings and embassies paused during the Second World War. 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.
After the War, several new works entering the Collection were displayed at 10 Downing Street, reflecting the mood of post-war Britain
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