Government Art Collection – Travelling Light at The Whitechapel Gallery

During my visit to Whitechapel last week, as well as the Zarina Bhimji retrospective, I also spent time at an exhibition of a number of pieces from the UK Government Art Collection selected by Simon Schama.  It’s part of a running series of such selections made by various guest curators.

The series brings into highlight the huge collection of art owned by the UK State, which is used to decorate government buildings in both the UK and abroad.  Imagine this piece at Number 10, or that one in the British embassy in Paris or Moscow.

The loose theme of Schama’s selection is that of travel, both of subjects in the act of travel, or an artist’s response to foreign or alien places.  It’s a theme very loosely applied, but the collection on display did give a tiny window into the wide range of style, age and subject of the works in the collection.

A number of the works left me cold, but others were intriguing and I spent a long time studying Grayson Perry’s Map of an Englishman, a witty etching of an imaginary brain, filled with words and phrases used to describe emotion and state of mind from Delirium to Bad Day; and Tacita Dean’s Palast I-IV, a series of photographs of reflections in the windows of  the former GDR’s Palast der Republik.

But true to form, it’s the stories behind the pictures which frequently pique my interest more.  Where have these pictures been hung?  Who chose them to be part of the representation of Britain as shown to the world?  How have the tastes for this changed over the years?  Which Ministers choose the achingly modern and which want to display depth of history?Have any of the pieces been so out of fashion that they’ve languished in a basement before a triumphant renaissance?

My curiosity was only partially satisfied.  The place from which each piece had been removed most recently for the exhibition was identified, but not its full history, with the exception of one painting.  The history of Byzantine Lady by Vanessa Bell was laid out in full.  It had last been on display in HM Ambassador’s Residence in Berlin, and prior to that in government offices, but had suffered a significant period in storage and under restoration in its life, indicating a period when it was rather unloved.

I wish there had been more such histories, but it was fascinating none the less, and I’ll be returning in March for the next in the series.

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  1. The red ‘links’ appearing are very helpful…I am keen to inspect Grayson’s Brain Map in close detail…


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