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From the NS archive: Hanging’s too good for them

12 June 1998: On the unofficial secrets being peddled about Labour’s attitude to art.

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A 1998 BBC2 programme, “The Secret Art of Government”, had columnists speculating on the meaning of prime minister Tony Blair’s choice of art in No 10. But, wrote Wendy Baron in the New Statesman, the story is far more complicated than one may assume. Baron, a former director of the Government Art Collection (GAC), described the purpose and problems of the GAC, then comprised of around 13,000 items distributed globally in diplomatic missions, government offices, and residences. The GAC had to contend with ministers who borrowed art from public galleries and then moved on to another country – as diplomats often do – without returning the works. Then there was the problem of what went where. It made sense to hang a Paula Rego in the British embassy in Lisbon; but what about sending valuable wo­rks to countries with sauna-like climates, or termite problems? “Because those eligible to borrow from it are practised in the use of power,” wrote Baron, “one of the GAC's most fraught duties is to resist attempts to use it as a lending library. A delicate touch is needed to disabuse those who believe that works of art are a perk or status symbol: a ministerial equivalent of the key to the executive loo.”

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You already knew from television – whether from Yes, Minister or News at Ten – that the walls of embassies and government offices are hung with pictures. The Secret Art of Government takes you to the source of those pictures: the Government Art Collection.

Even before airing, the programme has already spawned a rash of articles by political journalists ready to weave fiction from fact. What was Tony Blair's first act as prime minister? To oust his predecessor's hero, WG Grace, from the walls. New prime minister, new icons. The truth is less romantic. The Grace portrait was always due to leave Downing Street to join an exhibition on the history of cricket; the GAC had chosen 2 May as the date least disruptive to whoever won the election. It is doubtful if Blair knew anything of the matter.

And what of the new PM's cool choice of contemporary art at No 10? The significance of the selection of art by minister is seldom as transparent as journalists would have us believe. In reality, John Major had already been enjoying a changing display of work by living artists, including Hockney, Hodgkin, Kossoff, Auerbach, Uglow and Bridget Riley.

The Government Art Collection has never wanted to be a practitioner of secret arts. Now a century old, it is a working collection of around 13,000 items, mainly by British artists, acquired over the past century by purchase, gift and bequest. Only around 4,500 are original works of art, making numerical comparison with, say, the National Gallery, absurd. The rest are prints. The works are distributed around 300 cities across the globe. They hang in diplomatic missions, government offices, residences such as 10 and 11 Downing Street, centres of hospitality (Lancaster House and the QEII Conference Centre), the Commonwealth Secretariat at Marlborough House and the Royal Courts of Justice.

The Treasury set up the Collection in 1898 with a practical purpose: to buy portraits at “small prices” for the offices of the PM and the foreign secretary, putting the arrangement on a more formal footing in 1907 with an annual grant of up to £300.

This was to buy paintings or commission copies of historical portraits, to decorate rooms in public buildings and offices, saving the greater cost of redecorating government offices. In other words, paintings were cheaper than wallpaper.

In 1935 the Treasury agreed a small annual purchasing grant to buy works of art for British diplomatic missions abroad. This was the first recognition that ambassadors – hitherto drawn from the landed and wealthy classes – were no longer willing or able to furnish their official houses with personal possessions.

The chief problem for those who ran the collection up to the late 1940s was that it sometimes bought pictures of too high, rather than too low, a quality. In 1948, having scrutinised the list of acquisitions for 1947, the Treasury wrote to the Ministry of Works: "The titles of some of the pictures suggest that they are not of direct historical or official interest and the prices of some of them suggest that they are more than mere substitutes for new wallpapers or pieces of furniture; these, so far as I can trace the matter, were the limitations originally imposed when the authority was granted in 1907. Has there been some subsequent authority removing these limitations?"

This renewed attempt by the candle-end counters at the Treasury to compare the costs of pictures and wallpaper met a spirited response. It happened that a parliamentary committee had just emphasised the ambassadorial role of British art in re-establishing the image and prestige of Britain after the war, recommending that representative missions abroad be furnished with pictures showing the quality and achievement of the national schools. Forced to concede the case for diplomatic missions, the Treasury reserved a sting in its tail: provision for rooms of ministers – "after all, a Iuxury service" – must remain of lower priority.

From early in this century, the Office of Works was asked to take charge of works of art borrowed by individual ministers on their own initiative from museums and galleries. Too often, when ministerial borrowers moved on, no one could account for the pictures. By charging the Office of Works with responsibility, it was hoped that confusion leading to loss and damage could be avoided.

But this sensible theory was flawed. It took account neither of the disinclination of ministers to brook bureaucratic constraint on their whims nor of the possessiveness of government departments over anything they regard as their own property. These difficulties still make the GAC’s role as guardian of works of art in government hands one of the most sensitive and tricky of its portfolio of functions.

If works of art are to be put in government buildings, why can't they be borrowed from public galleries? The answers are many: the public expect works of art from the galleries to be accessible rather than shipped abroad out of range; few government buildings offer museum standards of environmental control; the physical security of works in embassies, given the volatility of international relations, cannot be guaranteed. One of the chief reasons for funding the collection adequately after the war was that it should protect the public galleries from VIP raids by providing an alternative, focused and cost-effective resource of works of art for loan to government.

Because those eligible to borrow from it are practised in the use of power, one of the GAC's most fraught duties is to resist attempts to use it as a lending library. A delicate touch is needed to disabuse those who believe that works of art are a perk or status symbol: a ministerial equivalent of the key to the executive loo.

Many of the operational tasks of the collection revolve around placing particular items where they work hardest for their living as tools of cultural diplomacy. Paintings by Portuguese-born Paula Rego are in the British Embassy, Lisbon; a portrait of Byron in Greco-Albanian dress is in the British Embassy in Athens; a portrait of Sir Robert Walpole, first occupant of 10 Downing Street, is in that front hall. All too often, however, the wish to locate works in the national interest is incompatible with the need to protect them from serious deterioration. Should works be exposed to the sauna environment of our colonial mansion in Singapore, to the termites of Central Africa, to the death-defying woodworm in Peru? How can reluctance to put works at risk be reconciled with the GAC's role as service provider? Can art be found to withstand such conditions? Sadly, most art is not climate-resistant, and much of it that is also resists classification as art.

Taste is another factor to constrain the best endeavours of the GAC. Those who run the collection will recognise the kind of letter from our man in Ruritania that begins: "I am shocked to find, on taking up my appointment, that my predecessor agreed to have modern pictures in this very traditional house with its reproduction 18th-century furniture and chintz curtains. May I therefore suggest ... "

It is easy to sneer at this sort of naivety, and hard to withstand the temptation to reply that reproduction furniture is best complemented by reproduction art. But there is a real problem. It is clearly impossible simply to consign abroad relevant robust works of the right size and get a good or even an acceptable result. Nor is it reasonable to ask borrowers to live with works that they find odious; room must be left for personal judgement and individual taste. This is why one major duty of GAC curators is to view works in situ and to make recommendations in the light of what is learnt on the spot – about poor hanging, about the condition of the works, about where they can and cannot safely be placed. Works previously declared missing can also be rescued from cellars and attics or removed from "safe store-rooms" that turn out to be hot, cramped laundry-rooms.

Cultural considerations, too, govern GAC operations. No representations of the human form in strict Muslim countries; nothing scatological for the Holy See; this much and more is self-evident. But the near-disaster when the GAC wished to buy Patrick Caulfield's Fish and Sandwich for the new embassy then being built in Riyadh demonstrates the need for greater subtlety. The painting was perfect in every way for the site and space – except that the pastrami sandwich looked like ham. In some curatorial nirvana, pictures once properly hung in the right environment for the right purposes might perhaps be expected to stay put. However, even were it possible to freeze displays deemed appropriate and discriminate, it would not be desirable. It would present a fossilised image of Britain, unwilling to accept the present and unable to face the future. The challenge is to use the settings offered by government buildings to integrate old and new, to engage the spectator in a visual dialogue.

On the other hand, attempts to use the display of art in government buildings to support a rebranding exercise cause at best puzzlement and at worst mockery. Britain's culture and heritage are not fashion accessories to be marketed like replica Manchester United strips. New art for old is a concept that disconnects the past and dislocates the present. "History is one unbroken stream."

Conservation needs of works of art, wholesale moves or rebuilding of government departments and residences, the creation of new countries and new diplomatic missions, the demise of old countries and old missions, all make stagnation impossible. At home, the ministerial and official merry-go-round never ceases. With every turn, the set changes.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)