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, without having to pay for full-scale refurbishment.

‘Saving a good sum in decoration…’

On 5 December 1899, Reginald Baliol Brett, 2nd Viscount Esher, the Permanent Secretary to the Office of Works, wrote to Sir Francis Mowatt, Permanent Secretary to the Treasury with an appealing proposal. Today, this memo is considered the foundation document of the Government Art Collection – illustrating the unusual circumstances of how it began!

My dear Sir Francis

I propose to offer £150 for the five… for the F. O. [Foreign Office]. They will hang in the “State Room” and save us a good sum in decoration. Do you approve?


Letter from Lord Esher to Francis Mowatt seeking Treasury approval to purchase five works of art © Crown Copyright, National Archives

painting of a man in a suit, head turned to the right

Sir Francis Mowatt (1837-1919) civil servant; Permanent Secretary of the Treasury 1904 by Charles Wellington Furse, oil on canvas © image: Crown Copyright