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 has shifted away from conflict and renegotiated its relationship with others in the postwar era, soft power and cultural diplomacy have become increasingly important national and political expressions. A thoughtful and strategic display of art in a government building or an embassy is a powerful medium for encouraging conversation and debate, for 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

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.

How has this unusual Collection evolved?

Discover a story that tells us about British society, artistic tastes and Britain’s changing place in the world.

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The Origins of the Collection

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.

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. The presence of works like these in embassies, started to raise awareness of the powerful cultural diplomatic role that art could play.

interior room showing a family dining

Meeting a demand for art

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.

room with two portraits on the walls

Growing the Collection

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.

interior of a bomb damaged room

Battlefields of Britain

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.

a man smoking a pipe at a desk in an office

Changing art for a changing Britain

After the War, several new works entering the Collection were displayed at 10 Downing Street, reflecting the mood of post-war Britain

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