If I am ever appointed to one of Britain’s Great Offices of State — stranger things have happened to Spectator hacks — the first thing I’d do is furnish my office. A raid on the Government Art Collection is a perk of being a minister, and better than the car and the driver. A few Hogarth engravings, a set of David Jones’s ‘Ancient Mariner’ etchings, Cedric Morris’s ‘Irises and Tulips’, Edward Bawden’s ‘The Coal Exchange’…I’d have liked to nab Winifred Nicholson’s ‘Flower Piece’, if only Carrie, the new Mrs Boris, hadn’t got there first.
A Freedom of Information request from The Spectator has lifted the little red velvet curtains on which works of art ministers have got from the vaults. Mr and Mrs Johnson are the most prolific borrowers, having signed out 44 works for the prime minister’s apartment at No. 11, Downing Street. Their eclectic selection is of a piece with their interiors style — a bit of this, a bit of that, a busy mix, luxury clutter. There’s a smidge of a green and eco vibe, too, in Howard Hodgkin’s ‘Herb Garden’ and Jessica Dismorr’s ‘Landscape with Trees’.
Meanwhile, Allen Jones’s ‘Hamlet’ lithograph, outrageously quilted and ruffed, should be a spur to Boris as he battles with his overdue Shakespeare book. If the muse deserts him, there are nine others on the wall. Joe Tilson’s aquatints of Calliope, Urania, Erato, Terpsichore, Polyhymnia, Thalia, Melpomene, Euterpe and Clio (rhetoric, astronomy, poetry, dance, geometry, comedy, tragedy, music and history) are an inspiration for speeches, columns, memoirs and diaries.
Next door at the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s flat in No. 10, Rishi Sunak is very much a Mid-Century Modern Man. Sunak has gone big on Barbara Hepworth with eight screenprints of assorted abstract shapes and forms. (I can’t help seeing all those holes and voids as a metaphor for Britain’s budget.) For relief and escapism there are Ivon Hitchens’s ‘Two Poppies on a Blue Table’, Graham Sutherland’s ‘Cornfield and Stone’ and Keith Vaughan’s ‘Rocky Landscape’. Antony Gormley’s aquatint ‘Untitled’ shows a lone figure pierced with myriad spikes like a martyred Saint Sebastian; a Chancellor bears many burdens. Then there’s Jake and Dinos Chapman’s screenprint ‘Double Deathshead’: perhaps a memento mori, a vanitas vanitatum, a check against too much ambition?
The Government Art Collection, founded in 1899, is an often-overlooked treasure trove. The collection of more than 14,000 works is lent not only to ministers, but to embassies, cultural institutes, civic spaces and exhibitions, and it continues to grow. Recent acquisitions include prints by Yinka Shonibare (terrific) and Tacita Dean (tedious).
Some ministers defy expectations. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the ‘honorable member for the 18th century’, is groovier than you might think. Alongside a painting after Van Dyck’s ‘King Charles I’ are prints by the contemporary artists Holly Hendry, Eva Rothschild and Christiane Baumgartner. Really quite cool choices from the thoroughly modern Mogg.
Foreign secretary and former university wrestler Dominic Raab has borrowed only one work: Sam Rabin’s wax crayon drawing ‘The Prelude’, a vertiginous ringside portrait of a wrestling-match master of ceremonies. While an art student at the Slade, Rabin moonlighted as a wrestler, and as an amateur won a bronze medal at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. He starred as a court wrestler in the 1933 film The Private Life of Henry VIII and as a prizefighter in The Scarlet Pimpernel the following year. Raab’s Rabin has the ring of a truly personal choice.
One of the works that appealed to me from the Chancellor’s office was Chila Kumari Singh Burman’s ‘Bengal Tiger Van — Raspberry Ripples, Chila’s Dad selling ice-cream on Freshfield Beach, Merseyside 1976’. Inkjet-printed on an enlarged £10 note, ‘Bengal Tiger Van’ shows holiday-makers queuing at an ice cream van with a great, stripy, cut-out tiger on the roof. This tiger was the symbol of Burman’s father’s ice cream business in 1960s Liverpool, at a time when many British Indians were in the ice cream game.
The print is embellished with crystals in sari-like patterns. It is both blingy and sepia-tinted. ‘Bengal Tiger Van’ happily captures the spirit of this staycation summer: days out, heaving beaches and well-behaved Great British queues.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s September 2021 World edition.