Art Market

Inside the Art Collection at the British Prime Minister’s Residence

Samuel McIlhagga
Dec 10, 2019 9:38PM

10 Downing Street. Photo by Sergeant Tom Robinson RLC, via Wikimedia Commons.

Ten Downing Street is probably the second-most important governmental building in the Western world after the White House. However, unlike its grander Neoclassical cousin, the British prime minister’s residence (built between 1682 and 1684 by Sir George Downing) is small, unassuming, and tucked behind much larger buildings on a London side street.

Despite its comparatively small size, it has functioned as the seat of executive power and the official residence of the head of Britain’s government for the better part of 300 years—it was first used as the center of government in 1735.

Because of its long history, Downing Street has slowly become a site of what is called “cultural influence” or “soft power.” Many of us might remember the yellow staircase lined with portraits of prime ministers that Hugh Grant dances down in the quintessentially British film Love Actually (2003). Once we look past Grant’s dancing, we realize that these pictures are placed here for effect—they convey the lineage of the British state chronologically: from Robert Gascoyne-Cecil (who was PM at various times between 1885 and 1902) to Tony Blair (who was PM when the film was made).

Barack Obama and Gordon Brown in 10 Downing Street. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


Once a prime minister is out of office, his or her photograph is added to the wall and all the other pictures shuffle down the staircase. Any visiting dignitaries have to walk this staircase, taking in an understated—or perhaps smug—narrative of British success. As the art historian Simon Schama stated in a documentary on Downing Street, “Where you might have in other great houses of state, even in the White House, huge portraits, larger than life-size, here [in the U.K.] we have modest engravings and photographs of the ghosts of Downing Street.” This is a modesty Schama notes throughout his documentary. Even understatement can be political.

However, not all the art in 10 Downing Street is predetermined. The prime minister, their family, and civil servants have a certain amount of leeway to impose their own aesthetic tastes on the building. A picture taken in 2012 during David Cameron’s administration, for instance, shows L.S. Lowry’s Lancashire Fair: Good Friday, Daisy Nook (1946) at the top of the staircase—just behind the house’s beloved feline occupant, Larry, the chief mouser of the cabinet office. Upon assuming office, Theresa May, in a much more overt gesture of power, placed framed quotations from her own inaugural prime ministerial speech throughout 10 Downing Street.

Downing Street's cat, Larry on the staircase with L.S Lowry, Lancashire Fair: Good Friday, Daisy Nook, 1946. Photo by Number 10, via Flickr.

Many U.K. government officials can request to hang art in their offices, embassies, and ministries, drawing on the extensive Government Art Collection (GAC). The collection was founded in 1899, when a government minister spent the small sum of £150 to purchase art to brighten up bleak offices in Whitehall. The collection now has more than 14,000 works of art in circulation in over 365 buildings across the globe. The GAC recognizes the role of aesthetic connotations and soft power, noting on its website: “As Britain has shifted away from conflict…soft power and cultural diplomacy have become increasingly important national and political expressions. A thoughtful and strategic display of art in a government building or an embassy is a powerful medium.”

Britain has recently entered a period in which “cultural diplomacy” seems of the utmost importance: Brexit. The man nominated by the Conservative Party to lead the U.K. out of Europe is Boris Johnson, an individual described by his official biographer, Andrew Gimson, as “more literary than visual.” There is truth to this. Which other modern head of state has debated a Cambridge professor about the comparative merits of ancient Greece and Rome?

Gimson told Artsy that Johnson has been consciously cultivating this classical aesthetic since university, where he “had a bust of Pericles which he took everywhere.” Pericles was an ancient Greek statesman and orator who fought in the Peloponnesian Wars. Gimson said this interior decoration choice was “partly a joke, but also serious as well.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson Hosts the 2019 NATO Leaders meeting at 10 Downing Street. Photo by Number 10, via Flickr.

Johnson’s classical education and referential rhetoric are increasingly turned toward populist talking points and right-wing isolationism. His clear capacity with language is used to make inflammatory remarks about “suicide vests” and “dying in ditches.” His lexical flourishes have also come up against the more restrained style of Jeremy Corbyn, the opposition leader, in various debates leading up to the December 12th general election.

While Johnson is adept with verbal metaphors, he also has a visual sense that he has exercised to some extent on Downing Street. His mother, Charlotte Johnson Wahl, is an Expressionist painter; his father, Stanley Johnson, is an author, environmental consultant, and former politician; and his first wife, Allegra Mostyn-Owen, is an art teacher and the daughter of William Mostyn-Owen, who was an influential art historian and Christie’s chairman. It seems improbable that he wouldn’t have picked up some understanding of the impact of art from those around him.

A Freedom of Information Request revealed what has been hung at 10 Downing Street since July 24th, when Johnson became prime minister (though we cannot state definitively whether any of these works were personally chosen by the PM). There have been 67 works of art placed in 10 Downing Street since July 24th. They are mostly paintings, a broad mixture of 19th-century genre pieces and landscapes, as well as contemporary abstraction. The works hung at 10 Downing Street under Johnson’s tenure include pieces by Julian Trevelyan, Lucian Freud’s assistant and model David Dawson, the Post-Impressionist Henry Lamb, the Surrealist Paul Nash, the Pop artist Peter Blake, performance artist Bedwyr Williams, and animal sculptor Nicola Hicks.

Alongside paintings that are suitably Johnsonian—such as George Howard’s The Baths of Caracalla, Rome (1890s), which depicts the second-largest public bath of the Roman Empire—are more contemporary takes on modern British life. One such work is James Fitton’s Market (1947), which illustrates the hustle and bustle of a food market, replete with flowers, fish, and fowl.

President Donald J. Trump arrives at 10 Downing Street on Tuesday, June 4, 2019. Photo by The White House, via Flickr.

However, the most interesting work of art that has been displayed at 10 Downing Street during Johnson’s residence is Nicholas Garland’s set of linocut cartoons called Annabel’s (1985). Garland is a cartoonist who has affiliations with the same publications that defined the prime minister’s early career: Both have worked at the Daily Telegraph, where Johnson was a junior journalist and Brussels correspondent, and at The Spectator, where Johnson was the editor. The prime minister wrote the preface to Garland’s book on the 2012 London Olympics, Drawing the Games, which he was commissioned to document in drawing by the mayor of London (who, at the time, was Boris Johnson).

Garland’s set of 14 elegant prints, all in black and white (one is hand-colored in red), portray the life of an aristocratic nightclub in the mid-1980s. Annabel’s, which was founded in 1963 and is located in Mayfair, caters to the British elite and celebrities. Garland’s drawings show the tailored and floppy-haired punters of the day, often known as Sloane Rangers or Old Fogies, dancing, smoking, eating, and drinking.

A number of the pictures show the lascivious side of 1980s high society. The first print in the series, which appears above an introduction by Lucian Freud, depicts a young woman dancing with an older man. The 14th print shows a man dressed in an evening suit seducing a woman with a large perm. These prints are relatively tame and aesthetically engaging enough, but the institutional setting of 10 Downing Street and the context of cultural power make the series a questionable choice. What is being projected?

Garland’s 12th print in the series, Dance Floor, is more problematic. This picture shows four middle-aged men and women dancing in front of a poster depicting two figures in blackface. This is presumably a representation of an early 20th-century jazz poster, which might have been hung in Annabel’s at the time. We can assume Garland was simply depicting the racist décor of the period.

Within the parameters of 10 Downing Street, this print takes on stronger connotations. Johnson has already employed racist tropes in his newspaper columns, using terms such as “piccaninnies” and “watermelon smiles.” The print’s visual impact is stark—the divide between the white establishment and the “other” literally contained within a box seems easily read.

Garland’s set of linocuts—editions of which regularly appear at auction and have been collected by major institutions including the Victoria and Albert Museum—came in a black-and-red folder. Let’s hope, for the sake of international diplomacy, that 10 Downing Street’s set is also kept in a similar folder and that they have not been hung on the walls of this venerable British institution. Contacted by Artsy, a Conservative party source would neither formally confirm nor deny that the print is on view at 10 Downing Street.

Soft power matters and art play a large part in this. Johnson desperately needs the good will of those who enter his house—especially if he wants to stay there after this week’s election.

Samuel McIlhagga