Monday, 15 November 2010

Are we all in this together - Tory ministers splash out adorning office walls with art, paintings and carpets


This report makes public each item of artwork that has been moved into ministerial private offices since the Coalition Government took office on 12 May. The information was obtained using the Freedom of Information Act.

The items of artwork listed are all on loan from the Government Art Collection. In total, £19,652 has been spent on transporting, installing and removing works of art from Government Departments since the Coalition took office.

The Government Art Collection is unable to provide a current estimated valuation for each work of art listed. Like other national collections, the Government Art Collection is normally not commercially insured – nor treated as a financial asset.

Against a background of constant and volatile fluctuations in the art market, I am told that current valuations of every work of art in the Collection are not maintained. Instead of this, the cost for each work of art - when it was originally acquired - has been provided to me.

The choices made by ministers will not move markets but they do show some ministers have an elegant eye for fine art (Francis Maude) as well as others who lack subtlety (Robathan).

Ministers to note:

Eric Pickles enjoys the view of two sculptures of Benjamin Disraeli, and William Gladstone – perhaps to remind him that he serves two masters.

Pickles’ collection also boasts three paintings with their implied journey from the na├»ve comfort of Cohen's interior at Howarth in Yorkshire, via Liverpool Street Station to Anthony Fry's Modernist France. Marjorie Sherlock’s Liverpool Street Station painting alone was valued at £10,000 when acquired in 1986.

Old chum Eric has also instructed officials to hang a print of a portrait of Her Majesty the Queen in the reception area his department. We are told that the print cost £256.64 to the taxpayer.

Similarly, Chancellor George Osborne shows that he likes it big and bold - he has opted for a 6 foot wide oil by the famous nonsense poet Edward Lear. Lear’s painting, 'View of Beirut', presents a romantic image many years before the area was torn apart in a civil war.

In addition, on Osborne’s wall hangs a 7ft long engraved map by Grayson Perry. It depicts a divided country, at war with itself, with the instructional title of 'Print for a Politician'. It begs the question whether he bought it to learn cartography, or did the message of diversity just appeal. £68,727 worth of artwork lines the Chancellor’s walls in total – based on the values given for when the artwork was acquired.

Fellow Treasury Minister and Commercial Secretary Lord Sassoon’s choices on the other hand are a major disappointment. I would have thought that his time as a former trustee of the National Gallery, and his heritage in being related to Seigfried, would have made him more original in his vision. Instead, Lord Sassoon has opted for a few modest engravings of the Palace's of Whitehall and Westminster and a painting of Thomas Coke. I am, though, reminded of some wonderful verse, which I might recommend to the Baron:

'You’ve got your limitations; let them sing,
And all your life will waken with a cry:
Why should you halt when rapture’s on the wing.
And you’ve no limit but the cloud-flocked sky?'
(quote from Limitations by Seigfried Sassoon).

Chris Grayling’s choices are also notable. I hope he’s not seeking to draw too much inspiration from his choice of engravings. Whilst I can see that he might enjoy the Victorian engravings of Derby days - no doubt to remind him both of his constituency and of the gamble he is taking in his present position - he has also selected a couple of etchings by John Serres, at one time a painter to King George. Instead of being able to retire on a pension Serres unfortunately ended his life giving drawings lessons to his fellow inmates in a debtor’s prison.

Owen Paterson, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, also has expensive taste. “The Monument”, a work from the Scottish artist James Pryde, takes pride of place in his office. In 1990, the picture was acquired for £42,000.00.

Ken Clarke seems to consider that only work created before he was born can be considered art. His choices are interesting, though, in their reference to what he must consider a golden age, with a painting of the then Lord High Treasurer - who was known as the principal advisor, the power behind the throne. Perhaps this painting is to remind him of a contemporary member of the Cecil family, Lord Cranborne, who was dismissed from his Conservative Party office for conducting unauthorised negotiations with Labour, hence the maxim 'history teaches: never trust a Cecil!'

Ministers at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport notably surround themselves with high value paintings too. Green hero Jeremy Hunt may have been the first Secretary of State to get rid of all ministerial cars in his Department but that did not extend to ministerial artwork. Both he and Parliamentary Under Secretary of State Ed Vaizey alone share 20 items of artwork between their two offices.

Others such as Hugh Robertson, the Minister for Sport, seem to like conservative prints such as those showing public schools and cricket grounds. He must be commended on choosing the Edwin La Dell print though. Edwin was a talented artist, who was employed during the war in the Civil Defence Camouflage Establishment. Being able to hide when the going gets tough is a handy skill.

Ed Vaizey’s voluminous collection of 21st Century art at DCMS is unmatched by any other minister and includes such notable artists as Michael Landy, whose conceptual pieces have often attacked institutions that wish to change society by discarding a minority of people. Landy’s previous works include “Closing Down Sale”, “Art Bin” and “Break Down”

In addition, Vaizey lines his walls to that darling of the Tabloids, and New Tory supporter, Tracy Emin. The Emin monoprints are a very bold choice; whilst some of her critics say they reveal someone with no technical ability at all, there are others who suggest that her style is only concerned with appealing to people’s desires and fears. A very limited conception of the human experience - no wonder those Margate monoprints are about loneliness.

Emin’s previous works included “Something’s wrong”, “The Reincarnation” series , “Masturbation” as well as “Get Ready for the Fuck of Your Life”.

I can’t help feeling that the minister would prefer the fabric artistry of Emin. Works including “It Always Hurts”, “Sometimes I Feel So Fucking Lost” and “Falling Stars”.

The choices of Francis Maude are worth noting too. They show a refined taste in lesser known but talented British artists, with images from different decades of the 20th century almost up to the present. Perhaps Mr Maude has missed his true vocation and would have been happier to have been placed at DCMS, especially if he could have had responsibilities for promoting a culturally narrow niche of well schooled artists?

Foreign Office Minister Lord Howell’s collection is a surprise. With his extensive knowledge and love of Japan he might have treated us with a choice from a Ukiyo-e printer or painter, or perhaps something from the obsessive conceptual artist Kusama. Instead, he disappoints with his choice of Vivares's idealised views of colonial Jamaica, the amateur astronomer Huggins's painting of the Seychelles and an unknown artist's views of the Ganges.

On the other hand, Defence Minister Andrew Robathan’s collection demonstrates a love of history with his choice of images of Wellington, Nelson, a Mezzotint of attack on the Armada, an engraving of the battle of the Nile, and finally, perhaps as an example of his up to date thinking; a photograuve of Horatio Herbert Kitchener.

Kitchener was notable, of course, for his defeat of the Sudanese Mahdist's, who had been revolting against the taxation and hardships they had suffered under colonial rule. The revolt effectively ended when at the battle of Omdurman 9700 Mahdists were killed and 13,000 wounded, for the loss of 47 of Kitchener's men and 340 wounded. Robathan may wish to find time to read Mason's The Four Feathers, which explores the moral complexity of this conflict, as a counter balance to his idealised images of heroism.

Cabinet Office Minister Baroness Warsi also boasts the most expensive piece of carpet per square foot in Whitehall. Her “carpet wall hanging” was valued at £3105.00 in 1984. Whitehall’s most expensive carpet is likely to be of even higher value today.

I can’t help but pick out Health Minister Anne Milton who has chosen the screenprint, “Cor” What a Bargain!” either. Valued at £481.00 in 1997, you can make up your own mind whether it is indeed a bargain in today’s economic climate

In total, I have counted 4 paintings of Liberal leaders, 15 paintings of Tory leaders and 9 battle scenes.

There are only five Cabinet Ministers – Theresa May, William Hague, Liam Fox, Caroline Spelman and Cheryl Gillan - who have been too busy to change the artwork on their walls - so far. I hope they find time to appreciate the art at their disposal.

Of course it is not a requirement that a minister draws on the government's own art collection for inspiration. I am told of a minister who provided his own framed portrait of Friedrich Hayek - the man who said: "we shall not grow wiser before we learn that much that we have done was very foolish". Quite.

Tom Watson MP

November 2010