The Pick - Government Art Collection: At Work

June 9, 2011

Government Art Collection: At Work

Whitechapel Gallery, London

The Government Art Collection dates back to the 1890s and includes 13,500 works, two-thirds of them on display at any one time, but ordinary taxpayers would usually need to be invited to an ambassador's reception or a meeting at the Treasury if they wanted to see any of them. The Whitechapel Gallery is now hosting a series of five exhibitions showcasing some of the most interesting items. (They will later tour Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery and then the Ulster Museum.)

The second and third shows will be curated by artist Cornelia Parker and historian Simon Schama, but the first (until 4 September) represents the choice of diplomatic and political insiders. Although some of the artworks are beautiful, most of the fun comes from speculating about why they were selected.

Why did Lord Mandelson go for a portrait of Elizabeth I holding up a medallion, and why did Ed Vaizey, minister for culture, communications and creative industries, opt for two monoprints of Margate by Tracey Emin? And what does it say about Samantha Cameron that she took down from the walls of No 10 a painting by L.S. Lowry, an image of the Thames and a shiny relief called White Diagonal that happens to form the letter "C"?

Many paintings in the collection were purchased with particular places in mind. Dame Anne Pringle, British ambassador to Moscow, suggested 17th-century portraits of Bohemia royalty she recalled from an earlier posting in Prague as well as pop artist Derek Boshier's response to the space race, which groups Yuri Gagarin with Abraham Lincoln, Horatio Nelson and Buddy Holly in a personal pantheon of "heroes" who died young.

Sir John Sawers looked back to his time at the embassy in Cairo with a 19th-century street scene and a "stripe painting" by Bridget Riley said to have been inspired by the colour scheme of ancient Egyptian wall paintings. More intriguing, given his current role as chief of the intelligence services, is his choice of Norman Blamey's enigmatic and unsettling self-portrait with his wife standing in front of a mirror.

When he was "bean counter in chief" - chief secretary to HM Treasury - Lord Boateng enjoyed displaying Bob and Roberta Smith's Peas are the New Beans, in which precisely those words appear in bright acrylic capitals on a blue background. He has also selected Edward Burra's delicious drawing of Jazz Fans and Osmund Caine's melancholy picture of a multicultural group of trainee soldiers at Aldershot barracks in 1940.

The biggest hitter involved, however, is Nick Clegg. David Tindle's Tea depicts a Thermos flask and cup on a rug in what seems to be a deserted landscape. Zarina Bhimji's Howling Like Dogs, I Swallowed Solid Air is a transparency on a light box, apparently inspired by a trip to her native Uganda, of fans scattered in an empty warehouse. Both are powerful and striking and make a good case for Clegg as a genuine art lover. Who can tell what they say about the state of the Liberal Democrats or the coalition?

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