Seeing the Art in Portcullis House

2013-07-09 17.32.22Portcullis House wouldn’t seem to be the obvious choice for an ‘art tour’ – it’s part of the Parliamentary Estate, in plain language, a building containing Committee rooms and offices for Members of Parliament.  It’s built directly above Westminster tube station, and dates from the extension of the station for the Jubilee Line.  But, in line with my current project of trying out new things in London, when I saw that they offer tours on the Fridays when there is scheduled to be no sitting in the House, it seemed like a good opportunity to see inside a building I wouldn’t necessarily otherwise visit and therefore was a  thing to add to the list.

It turns out that it’s not a brilliant place for art, what it does have is a collection of portraits, selected, by a cross party Parliamentary Committee, more on the basis of the subject of the painting than the quality of its execution.  They seek to have portraits of all significant parliamentarians, representing the first this, the first that, the longest serving the other.  The tour was confined to the corridors of the first floor of the building, where there are a number of the Committee Rooms, satisfyingly like the ones seen on the television news. It may be that all the good paintings are on the higher floors.

It was the stories about the works, and the paintings of the House of Commons in session, packed with faces and bodies all scrunched up together on the benches, that were the most interesting.  There is no hiding the vanity of those who actively seek public office.  The works I found the most satisfying were not portraits at all.

Print for a Politician by Grayson Perry, a monochrome line etching, was like a map of prejudice, and then I found this interview with him about it

Gerald Scarfe has gifted a couple of his caricatures to the Collection, one of Thatcher at war and, to be even handed, one of Blair at War.

The tour group were standing in a corridor outside a busy committee room when we had to stand to one side to allow a group of people, besuited, lanyards bumping against their chests, phones pinned to their ears, to pass by and go into the room.  The guide had just started to speak again, when another group came through.  I recognised Oliver Letwin, a Cabinet Minister, leading the pack, and looking much more diminutive than I would expect (but then so many people are).  It began to feel like one of those comedy skits showing an apparently inexhaustible supply of people appearing from around the corner and going into a room which must already be overfull.  What with that, the passage of several members of the government, and it looking like a scene from The Thick  of It, it wasn’t perhaps that surprising that David Cameron thought I was smiling at him when he walked by and gave me a nod of acknowledgement.

Both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer had the same, half smiling, a little vacant expressions on their faces.  I’m not sure what my face would say if I was walking along a corridor towards a meeting, but it is unlikely that it would have that slightly bland, slightly blank expression.  It must be something they learn to do; an expression for walking about the place when you don’t know who you might see……rather like many of the portraits on display.

It turns out that the House of Commons was sitting on Friday to discuss the European referendum,and there was some kind of side meeting of the Conservative Party members mid morning.

All our guide could say afterwards was ‘That never happens. That really never happens.’

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