Thanks to a tip-off by Jo Moncrieff of Westminster Walking, I got myself a slot on last Wednesday’s visit to the Government Art Collection (GAC). It was arranged under the auspices of the Whitechapel Gallery‘s current series of exhibitions featuring art from the collections.
The Government Art Collection is based in Queen’s Yard just of Tottenham Court Road, near Goodge Street Station. You wouldn’t notice it from the street, and indeed it has traditionally kept a low profile over the 113 years of its existence. It all began in 1898 when the government decided to catalogue and unify all the art it owned. It has come under various departments over the years, currently the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. From the early days, the government decided it needed to have a programme of acquisitions, providing GAC with a whole £300 and a few years later a further less-than-generous £250.
A very partial list of artists in the collection includes: Thomas Lawrence, Francis Bacon, Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds, John Constable, William Hogarth, JMW Turner, Paula Rego, Peter Lely, Lucien Freud, David Hockney, Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer, Augustus John and yes, Tracey Emin. Search the full list here.
The collection comprises about 13,000 objects, mainly paintings, drawings, engravings and the like, but also antiques such as silverware. Most of these are distributed among government departments throughout the land, but importantly also our embassies and consulates abroad. At present, about a third of the stock is held at HQ. And this is what we came to see.
About 25 of us were shown around by Clive Marks, the collection’s Senior Administrator and curator Roger Golding. These two gentlemen really know their stuff and they clearly relished showing us around despite it being outside of their working hours. The GAC is broadly three areas: two rooms are for display; a further room is the archive, where all the “inactive” works are stored; and finally a large room is used for checking objects in and out, and importantly where works are repaired, conserved and prepared for despatch to their new homes.
The staff of the GAC play an important curatorial role in the advice they give to ministers and civil servants about the most appropriate pieces for government walls, and where advice is not sought, make the actual selections themselves.
In addition to checking out what was on the walls, our hosts selected some pieces that may interest us. I don’t know how they knew I was coming, but on the conservator’s table was a series of four colour engravings which featured panoramic views of Central London across the Thames by Samuel and Nathaniel Buck dated 1749, one of which featured the brand new Westminster Bridge. Such treasure. I drooled. But there was another, done forty years later by Sayer which was an update of the Buck image, but had worked in the new Blackfriars Bridge. Here they both are.
Seeing the Government Art Collection.
- Between now and September Whitechapel Gallery are showing selections featuring choices by Simon Schama, Downing Street staff and new commissions. Entrance is free.
- The GAC participates in Museums at Night and Open House London
- If you’re really patient and a member of London Historians, we’re visiting on 26 June 2013!
My thanks to Robert Jones for permission to use the above images.