The Politics of Art

By Mould, Philip | The Spectator, April 11, 1998 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Art


Mould, Philip, The Spectator


There is money to be made in politics. Over the last two months Sotheby's has been combing the market for political art and antiques for its first sale directed exclusively at a potential clientele of political enthusiasts. Departmental experts, normally used to assessing objects on the basis of style, craftsmanship and attribution, are now trying to evaluate political sex-appeal: is a bad portrait of Thatcher worth more than a good one of Macmillan? Will Peel's inkstand have collectors scrabbling to bid, or passing by oblivious, in favour of Gladstone's slippers?

These considerations are niceties in a market that has been growing steadily over the last 20 years and which now finds itself supported by a large network of collectors. At its centre are the House of Commons and House of Lords, both of which have their own curator and specialist committees, who hawkishly survey the art world for highquality items of relevance to Parliament and its history. Their respective chairmen, Sir Patrick Cormack and Lord Gowrie, have developed a wily knowledge of the market's foibles, and with limited funds have succeeded in enhancing the Palace's holdings in recent years with portraits, topographies and memorabilia. Across the party lines and ranks there are individual collectors such as Lord Baker, Lord St John-Stevas and Tony Banks. Banks, who is devoted to collecting Wilkes and Fox, will actively buy and sell other political art and artefacts to fund his passion, and intends to bequeath his growing collection of 18th-century radicalism to the House.

Politicians undeniably have professional pride in collecting other politicians these historical figures were, after all, previous incumbents of their own positions but there is another group of ardent buyers outside professional politics, who sometimes part with large sums to bring a piece of their hero home.

Politics seems better able to create historical heroes than other professions. Wit, conviction, courage and vision in the face of adversity and opposition can make these often flawed individuals charismatic figures for those with money and an interest in constitutional history. More emotive than great literature and science, and less transient than sporting prowess, high-quality objects and images associated with great statesmen and prime ministers top the league table of commercial desirability along with military heroes like Nelson and Wellington (also a prime minister).

Predictably, to date at least, it is the Tory statesmen and prime ministers who have fared best. Sir Winston Churchill as artist never fails to rally: Tory prime minister, adventurer, historian, world statesman, half American and, as if that were not enough, copyist and pastichist of Impressionism the most accessible art form ever invented - he did not altogether surprise the art world last year when one of his works sold for 150,000 to the carpet tycoon Lord Harris.

Benjamin Disraeli, prime minister and novelist, not only has the advantage of espousing one nation conservatism, he was also Jewish. This adds up to a very substantial potential clientele with means. To thrive, the market needs enough supply to create competitive fervour, and Disraeli spent enough hours in artists' studios to form a substantial iconographical record which was replicated and duplicated in volume. Today, he is so desirable as an historical subject that I have even encountered portraits of anonymous contemporaries of his who have been wickedly `re-christened' as the statesman, or physically altered in hair and face to resemble him with a view to duping the market. Other grandees of this commercial category include Pitt the Younger (recently bought by the Society of Lincoln's Inn where he was called to the Bar) and Peel, of whom contemporary portraits of quality are now so scarce that they rarely surface at auction.

As well as `one-off political mavericks such as Richard Cobden and William Cobbett - images of whom were both recently bought by the House of Commons, and of whom both have other groups of enthusiasts or societies to keep their names alive - there are the historical figures whose careers embody politics, but whose sphere of activities is wider and more embracing. …

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