Former prime minister Tony Blair was painted in 2008 by Phil Hale for £6,000. A portrait of Kenneth Clarke, QC, MP, by James Lloyd was unveiled on 4 December 2007 in the Attlee Suite, Portcullis House. It was commissioned by the Speakers Advisory Committee on Works of Art.
Of all the stories one learns by discreetly reading someone’s else newspaper in the tube, having forgotten to pick up a free copy of the London Evening Standard, this one couldn’t have been more relevant. The headline screams,’MPs Spend Our Cash On Their Portraits‘. These reports followed shortly after The National Portrait Gallery unveiled its most recently-commissioned portrait, of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, on 20th December 2013. Before any allegations are made, it is important to consider who commissioned the portrait and for what purpose was it commissioned. In this case, the former Prime Minister’s portrait is the latest in the National Portrait Gallery’s plan to house portraits of all former British Prime Ministers, in a similar manner to a permanent collection of American Presidents at the Smithsonian portrait gallery in Washington.
The four feet by three oil painting by Alastair Adams, President of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, is a dramatic close-up of Mr Blair who is remembered for transforming the Labour Party, initiating vast public sector reform, negotiating the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland and taking the country into bloody conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr Blair sat for the painter during the spring of 2011 at his home in Buckinghamshire and according to the gallery the resulting work “very immediate portrayal of the longest-serving Labour Prime Minister and, to date, the youngest Labour Prime Minister to take up office since 1812.
Art patronage and portraiture commemorating political posterity is not an anomaly in Britain’s history, in fact much of Britain’s economy is dependent on the collection, display and conservation of this tradition. Some personal favourites below.
The Portrait of Henry VIII is the now-legendary full-length portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger. Now lost to us due to its destruction by fire in 1698, our understanding of the portrait comes from a myriad of impressive copies of the original work. The portrait was carefully devised to portray Henry in an idealized way, showing him as the “Renaissance man” he imagined himself to be. The Chatsworth Portrait copy was done by Hans Eworth, c. 1560-73 in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. It was probably commissioned by William Cavendish and resides in Chatsworth House in Derbyshire.
‘The Royal Family: A Centenary Portrait’ by John Wonnacott oil on canvas on foamboard, 2000 144 3/8 in. x 98 1/4 in. (3663 mm x 2493 mm) Commissioned, 2000 National Portrait Gallery, London
Queen Elizabeth I (‘The Ditchley portrait’) by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, oil on canvas, circa 1592 Known as the ‘Ditchley Portrait’, this painting was produced for Sir Henry Lee who had been the Queen’s Champion from 1559-90. It probably commemorates an elaborate symbolic entertainment which Lee organised for the Queen in September 1592, and which may have been held in the grounds of Lee’s house at Ditchley, near Oxford, or at the nearby palace at Woodstock.. After his retirement in 1590 Lee lived at Ditchley with his mistress Anne Vavasour. The entertainment marked the Queen’s forgiveness of Lee for becoming a ‘stranger lady’s thrall’. The portrait shows Elizabeth standing on the globe of the world, with her feet on Oxfordshire.
Queen Victoria [ 1819-1901 ] After original by Franz Xaver Winterhalter Contains Parliamentary information licensed under the Open Parliament Licence v1.0
Spencer Perceval by George Francis Joseph The only British Prime Minister to be assassinated.The sub-title reads:’ Assassinated in the Lobby of the House of Commons by John Bellingham on the 11th May 1812′. Portrait in oils by Joseph showing Perceval in informal jacket and cravat seated in red upholstered chair holding papers. The Dictionary of National Biography states that no likeness of Spencer Perceval was taken from life. A number of posthumous portraits were executed using the death mask as a model.
King James II by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1684 Purchased in 1882 by the National Portrait Gallery
Sir Winston Churchill by Oswald Birley, painted in 1946
Queen Elizabeth II by Pietro Annigoni, oil on panel, 1969 The trustees of the National Portrait Gallery commissioned the Italian artist Pietro Annigoni to paint a new portrait of the Queen in 1969. The Queen herself had expressed a preference for the artist who had painted her once before in 1954; two years after her coronation. Annigoni’s second portrait, paid for by the art dealer Sir Hugh Leggatt, took 10 months and 18 sittings to complete. During this period the artist produced the sketch displayed here. This stark and monumental composition proved to be a startling contrast to Annigoni’s earlier portrait of the young queen, which was glamorous and romantic. He explained his changed approach: ‘I did not want to paint her as a film star; I saw her as a monarch, alone in the problems of her responsibility’. The unveiling of the portrait in 1970 generated enormous press and public interest.
Portrait of Elizabeth I of England in her coronation robes. Copy c. 1600–1610 of a lost original of c. 1559. The pose echoes the famous portrait of Richard II in Westminster Abbey, the earliest known portrait of a British sovereign.
Here’s an excerpt from the article to be read with 2 pinches of salt:
MPs have splurged around £250,000 of taxpayers’ money having portraits painted of fellow parliamentarians, the Evening Standard can reveal.
The spree, branded “an expensive vanity project” by critics, included £10,000 on a portrait of Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, £4,000 to preserve Foreign Secretary William Hague in oils and £8,000 for a painting of Kenneth Clarke, the Minister Without Portfolio. Labour Left-wingers Diane Abbott, the MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, Dennis Skinner and Tony Benn each sat for portraits, at a cost to the public purse of £11,750, £2,180 and £2,000 respectively.
The figures reveal a big jump in spending on official portraits after the Labour landslide of 1997, with more frequent commissions and much higher fees paid to top artists. In the five years from 1995, only three MPs were so honoured — the first woman Speaker Baroness Boothroyd (twice), Lord Ashdown and Mr Benn — at a cost of £13,500, or £3,375 on average. Three of the paintings cost £2,000 or less.
In the five years from 2000, however, 11 parliamentarians were honoured at a cost of £78,980 — an average of £7,180. The next five years saw them run up a bill of £93,076 for 10 commissions, an average of £9,300 each.
“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.” Since 2010, the expenditure has fallen — with some notable exceptions. An £11,750 portrait of former foreign secretary Margaret Beckett in egg tempera by Antony Williams was unveiled in 2011.
In the same year, Speaker John Bercow unveiled a portrait of himself that cost £22,000 to commission, plus another £15,000 for a frame and coat of arms in keeping with other paintings in the Speaker’s House.
Read full story here.
The Parliamentary Art Collection is owned jointly by the House of Commons and the House of Lords and is administered by a committee in either house. Alongside the House of Commons Works of Art Committee, the Speakers Art Fund is in place as a means by which the House acquires works of art. The Collection is managed and cared for by an on-site team of curatorial staff. Read about the House of Parliament collection administration here. How does the portrait artist satisfy his powerful patrons while not sacrificing one’s artistic integrity? Here are some examples of controversial portraits which either had the pleasure of evoking much displeasure amongst royalty and politicians or portraits that have caused public dispute.
A painting of a sixtysomething Queen Elizabeth I, depicting her with facial wrinkles, is being exhibited at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. Produced by the studio of Gheeraerts in the early-mid 1590s, the painting now owned by the Elizabethan Gardens in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, is having its first public showing after conservation and authentication in 2010-2011. The exhibition’s co-curator, Thomas Herron, an author and English professor at East Carolina University, noted that the reason for the portrait’s obscurity may lie in Elizabeth’s efforts to control her image. And according to Anna Riehl, author of The Face of Quee
Lucian Freud (1922-2011) compared the task of painting The Queen with that associated with a polar expedition. As an artist who was accustomed to painting his family and friends, he was acutely aware of the need to focus on the ‘inner likeness’ behind such a recognisable face. Freud attempted to make his task more manageable by using a small canvas only 20 cm high, as that would require fewer sittings. He also decided to depict only The Queen’s head and shoulders, rather than paint a full-length image. However, once work had commenced, Freud decided to add the Diamond Diadem, perhaps to make the figure more immediately recognisable, and so had to extend the upper edge of his canvas by 3.5 cm.
John Napper’s portrait of Queen Elizabeth II was considered so unflattering that it was hidden from display.
Winston Churchill’s must be the most famous face of the twentieth century, wreathed in cigar smoke and with his look of formidably aggressive determination. Sickert caught his character well in this sketch undertaken when Churchill was Chancellor of the Exchequer. At the time, Sickert was giving Churchill painting lessons at the latter’s house, Chartwell in Kent. Sickert worked chiefly from photographs in this period, allowing him to paint portraits without commissions or sittings, but Churchill may have sat for him on one of these occasions. Churchill himself disliked the portrait and gave it away soon after it had been presented to him.
The Queen’s portrait from 1952 was deemed not enough of a likeness. Many fans complained that Duchess Kate’s official portrait also didn’t bear a resemblance. It turns out Duchess Kate isn’t the only royal to get a controversial portrait: The Queen was also once the victim of a bad paint job. A 1952 portrait of Queen Elizabeth II is on display again this week after being hidden from view for more than 60 years, initially rejected for portraying the monarch with an exaggeratedly long neck.
English painter Graham Sutherland poses with his unfinished portrait of Winston Churchill, in 1954. The portrait is infamous, as it was rejected by Churchill and destroyed by his wife Clementine, soon after it was delivered. Getty Images
How different is the process of commissioning painted portraits compared to portrait photographs?
I had the pleasure of meeting London portrait photographer Tom Campbell at an event recently. He has shot the portraits of Cesc Fabregas, Diane Von Furstenburg, Bori Johnson, Lulu Guinness, Mrs B and many others. Click here to read Tom’s story on photographing London Mayor Boris Johnson.