The Exhibitionist: Ed Vaizey on the many portraits of the Queen
One of the perks of becoming a government minister is getting access to the Government Art Collection. This unique body was established at the end of the 19th century, when a clever clerk of the works worked out it would be cheaper to cover damp patches on the walls of government buildings with paintings, rather than fresh wallpaper.
This judicious decision has led to a great collection of British paintings which now adorns the walls of ministers’ offices and our embassies all around the world. In fact, the collection’s 14,700 works of art can be found in 130 countries.
Every new minister gets a visit from the formidable director of the collection, Penny Johnson, who asks what they want on their walls. As a new arts minister, I was tremendously excited and interested. I asked Penny for a range of works – Kossoff, Freud, Auerbach and so on. After listening to this demented rant, Penny drew herself up to her full height and said coldly, ‘Minister, we are not an Argos catalogue.’
What I did get was a Damien Hirst, and not just any old Damien Hirst. It is a splash painting of our wonderful Queen and achieved fame of sorts when Matt Hancock inherited it and it moved with him to the Department of Health. Many a Covid interview (and perhaps the occasional snog) was gazed upon by Hirst’s Majesty.
As we celebrate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, you can do a virtual Hancock. Visit the Government Art Collection’s website, and search for the Queen. You will discover that not only do we, as taxpayers, own the Hirst, we also have an Andy Warhol of the Queen, currently hanging in the residence of our ambassador to the United Nations. We have a copy of the famous Annigoni portrait, hanging in our embassy in Italy. In London itself, we have a lovely Luis Mezzadra portrait of the Queen laughing. There are numerous photographs of the Queen by the famous pioneering photographer Dorothy Wilding. And lots by David Bailey but you can’t see them because they are copyright protected (boo!).
My favourite, however, from this rich and varied collection is the multi-framed painting by Johannes Tessema of the Queen’s state visit to Ethiopia, a supremely charming, colourful
and endlessly engaging work.
If the Government Art Collection feels too narrow, go further afield and visit the site of Art UK (artuk.org). This wonderful charity has photographed every painting in a public collection. Here you will find many a gem, and possibly a new arts venue that could be worth a visit. What could possibly keep you away from Hull’s Guildhall, where you can see the charming oil painting showing the Queen departing the Corporation Pier in a motor launch at the beginning of her state visit to Denmark in 1957? Or indeed the Surrender of the Sword of State to the Queen in 1969, which took place at Hull railway station. Both historic events were recorded by the same local artist. Then there is Britannia leaving the Tees, which can be found in Hartlepool’s museum. You can’t actually see the Queen, but she was definitely on board. My favourite here is the portrait of the Queen by the unfortunately named Joan Wanklyn, of the Queen receiving a crystal bowl from the Royal Welch Fusiliers, to be found at the regimental
museum in Caernarfon castle.
The Queen has had many Jubilees, and the best celebrations are the informal street parties and gatherings. So while there are many formal exhibitions about, why not get into the spirit and create your own Queen collection.
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