A 'Parliament of Posers'?

January 14 2014

Image of A 'Parliament of Posers'?

Picture: House of Commons Works of Art Collection 

The Daily Mail has worked itself up into a lather over the Houses of Lords and Commons' art budget. In particular, it dislikes Parliament's decision to commission portraits of contemporary politicians. Says the paper:

Politicians have lavished a quarter of a million pounds of taxpayers’ money on vanity portraits of themselves.*

The spree included £11,750 for an apparently topless painting of Labour’s Diane Abbott [above, by Stuart Pearson Wright] – the same amount as was spent on a full-sized statue of Baroness Thatcher.

Other works include an £11,750 portrait of former foreign secretary Margaret Beckett, a £10,000 portrait of Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, an £8,000 painting of Kenneth Clarke and a £4,000 oil painting of Foreign Secretary William Hague.

Labour left-wingers Tony Benn and Dennis Skinner had portraits commissioned which cost £2,000 and £2,180 respectively.

The bill for the artworks of two dozen politicians has been racked up since 1995 and approved by the Speakers’ Advisory Committee on Works of Art. By far the bulk of the spending came in the second term of the New Labour government.

The huge sums were signed-off by a little-known committee off MPs which each year asks some of the country’s best portrait paintings to produce work of their colleagues.

You've got to love the 'apparently topless' line. Feel that Home Counties' indignation.

Now, you might expect me, as the author of the still-available-to-purchase book 'Crap MPs', to agree entirely with the Mail's Philistinism. But no! I used to work for the former chairman of the Commons Works of Art Committee, the late Labour MP Tony Banks, and worked on many of the projects the Mail disapproves of. So there are many points I could make here, but I'll confine myself to just three. 

First, Tony helped transform Parliament's art collection into a more vibrant, outward-looking and accessible collection, which it badly needed, and that required some cash. In a building almost entirely dominated by portraits of white blokes, it was entirely right that Tony commissioned portraits of people like Paul Boateng (the first black Cabinet Minister), Diane Abbott (the first black woman MP), Betty Boothroyd (the first female Speaker), and David Blunkett (who is blind). Secondly, the portraitists invariably reduced their fee in return for the prestige and publicity of the commission. Finally, it is surely Parliament's duty to continue to commission portraits of contemporary political figures if that process has been going on for literally hundreds of years. Why stop now? Wouldn't it be odd if, for example, the Speaker's House, which has portraits of Speakers going back to the 17th Century, to suddenly leave a gap for John Bercow, or to hang his portrait with a bargain-basement frame, just because it might upset the Mail

You can search Parliament's art collection online here. They even have a likeness of one Alfred Harmsworth, founder of the Mail empire.

*That figure comes if you add up the cost of all portraits commissioned since 1995. Almost 20 years ago. So that's an average of £13k a year. 

Update - the story has caught on, with even The Guardian following up. The Guardian piece includes this quote from Philistine Of The Day Jonathan Isaby of the (entirely self-appointed) 'Taxpayers Alliance':

"When photographs are so much cheaper than paintings, politicians need to think twice about spending our money immortalising themselves or their friends on canvas, or even in bronze."

Update II - a more considered view of MPs' portraits in The Telegraph here

Update III - by chance, I met Stuart Pearson Wright yesterday, who tells me that the reason his portrait of Diane Abbott is 'almost topless' is because she asked for it to be so.

Update IV - Joanthan Jones in The Guardian sees great value in the MPs' portraits:

Only a nation that utterly loathes its own elected representatives, and by implication its entire system of government, could find something to attack in this serious collection, that puts Abbott's face into history alongside the portraits and statues of her white male Victorian parliamentary predecessors. Painted portraits still flourish as a way of honouring someone and acknowledging their place in history. The National Portrait Gallery adds to its collection all the time – why not complain about its regular royal commissions, which come from public funds just as surely as anything parliament commissions?

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