The Vanity Project

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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Save Van Dyck's Self-portrait

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