From Decoration to Diplomacy

From the late 19th to the early 20th centuries, portraits and landscape paintings were bought, borrowed, commissioned or received for display in government buildings. Images of British monarchs and famous figures brought a sense of stature to entrance halls and state rooms.

interior of an grand room in an embassy

Interior of the British Embassy, Paris in the early 1900’s, showing a large full length portrait of Edward VII. © Private Collection of Tim Knox and Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, London

In 1899, a professional copyist was commissioned to produce a portrait after Heinrich von Angeli’s stately portrait of Queen Victoria, depicting the monarch two years before her death.

Portrait of Queen Victoria. She us wearing a crown with a white veil and is holding a fan.

Queen Victoria (1819-1901) by Heinrich von Angeli (after), 1899 © image: Crown Copyright

In 1939, Lord Duveen donated a pair of portraits of King George III and Queen Charlotte, (after the 1761 originals by Allan Ramsay) to the newly-built British Embassy in Washington D.C. The ambassador, Lord Lothian mischievously enjoyed referring to the King’s portrait as the ‘Founder of the American Republic’. Guests wondered why George Washington looked so different in appearance.

portrait of a King

King George III (1738-1820) Reigned 1760-1820 by Allan Ramsay (after), oil painting © image: Crown Copyright

portrait of a Queen

Charlotte Sophia of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (1744-1818) Queen of King George III by Allan Ramsay (after), oil painting © image: Crown Copyright

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