When Art Meets Diplomacy

GAC historical curator, Dr Laura Popoviciu interviews Paul Brummell, Head of Soft Power and External Affairs at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

interior with three archways in the British Embassy Budapest

Interior of the British Residence, Bucharest

Paul Brummell, Head of Soft Power and External Affairs, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

A diplomat and travel writer, Paul was the British Ambassador to Romania between 2014 and 2018. After a fleeting visit to the British Embassy in Bucharest, Romanian-born Laura wanted to explore further the cultural and diplomatic relations between the two countries. Find out what she discovered during their conversation.

Laura Popoviciu: UK diplomats undertake a journey in order to represent the country’s interests around the globe; in the same way, works of art from the GAC undertake a parallel journey. What would you say happens when art meets diplomacy?

Paul Brummell: Art flourishes where there is a lively international exchange of ideas and people. For example, the development of English portraiture owed much to foreign court painters like Van Dyck.

Sir Anthony van Dyck (studio), Katherine, Duchess of Buckingham, with her children, 1633

Art can offer new perspectives to tackling the major global challenges facing us. Art can also be a powerful element of national identity. While there are risks around this, as seen in the way that art has been used by autocratic rulers to bolster their legitimacy, art can also be an important element in a country’s soft power – its attractiveness to others. In the same way diplomats aim to support and strengthen the bilateral relationship between the United Kingdom and the host country. This is achieved by both showcasing British soft power and helping to nurture people-to-people contacts and through joint collaboration in tackling the pressing challenges facing the world.

Laura Popoviciu: Engaging with art and culture can change the way people think, feel and behave. When set in the context of international relations, this is often talked about as ‘Cultural Diplomacy’ and ‘Soft Power’. How do you define the two concepts and what is their purpose?

Paul Brummell: “Soft power” is a term coined in 1990 by US academic Joseph Nye, as the ability of a country to secure its objectives through the attractiveness of its culture, values and international behaviour. Nye contrasts this with ‘hard power’, which is about a country’s economic strength and military muscle. He argued that to be internationally successful, a country must deploy both. Since soft power is about attractiveness, it derives from the receiver not the sender. The UK is attractive only when international audiences perceive us to be so.

G8 summit at Lough Erne Resort in Northern Ireland, 2013, © Crown Copyright, photo by Arron Hoare

“Cultural diplomacy” is a more focused term, involving the use by governments of cultural exchange to foster mutual understanding and develop influence. Thus the work of the GAC is part of the UK’s cultural diplomacy strategy, using the power of artworks displayed in government buildings around the world, and in turn takes its strength from the soft power of British art.

Laura Popoviciu: When you were British Ambassador to Bucharest, how did you deploy art to influence others in the negotiation processes that took place in the Residence?

Abraham Ortelius, Map of Romania, 1584

Paul Brummell: The artwork which used to generate most attention from Romanian guests was Abraham Ortelius’s 1584 Map of Romania.

This sparked many conversations about the origins of modern Romania and the country’s changing historical fortunes. It also served as a sign of the Embassy’s interest in Romania’s history and culture, and thus a mark of respect for the host country.

We decided to name the three official guest bedrooms in the Residence after three remarkable women who played important roles in the development of the UK-Romania relationship: Queen Marie of Romania (1875-1938), a grand-daughter of Queen Victoria; English-born Maria Rosetti (1827-1876), wife of the literary and political princely leader Constantin Alexandru Rosetti; and Elsie Inglis (1864-1917), the founder of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, who played a crucial role in caring for injured service personnel on the Romanian front in the First World War. Each bedroom was decorated with a painting or photograph of its subject. I think our guests welcomed the fact that we were celebrating the deep historical connections between the two countries.

Laura Popoviciu: Were there works at the Residence in Bucharest that you think visitors were surprised to find in a diplomatic building?

Carel Weight, Life in Putney, 1956

Paul Brummell: Perhaps the most surprising item on the Residence walls was a fire-damaged London print. We had retained it as a reminder of the damage sustained to the previous Residence building during the Romanian Revolution in 1989. But my personal favourite among the GAC artworks on display in Bucharest was Carel Weight’s Life in Putney, one of several pieces to enliven my office wall. It was a placid autumnal suburban scene, with the height of action represented by a couple walking their dog. I never did identify a Romanian connection to the painting, though.

Laura Popoviciu: In a blog post you wrote in 2018, you concluded that the ‘GAC plays an important part in the mobilisation of British soft power to support the development of our international friendships’. Looking ahead to the future of the UK’s foreign diplomatic relations, are there any ways you think the GAC could make new contributions to soft power?

Paul Brummell: I think one area which could be developed more strongly is around enhancing awareness in the UK of the GAC and its role. To this end, the GAC’s forthcoming move, with the prospect of accessible display space at the new site, is I think an important opportunity to be able to showcase material which illuminates the role of the collection in support of diplomacy. Another important development is around technology, and the opportunities that the digital revolution have given to make the GAC’s collection available to a wider audience than those who will physically visit an Embassy or ambassadorial residence. The revamping of the GAC website is of course a response to this opportunity.

Two art handlers hang a picture on a wall under the direction of a curator

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