15 Dec 2011

The art of diplomacy

The British Ambassador’s residence in Washington DC is not a particularly beautiful building. The one in Paris next to the Elysee Palace is far more spectacular. Our man in Tripoli resides in the elegant villa that used to belong to the Italian Naval commander.

But what the Washington billet has is a marvelous collection of paintings. The most eye-catching is a print portrait of the Queen done by Andy Warhol. Americans always marvel at this patchwork of eye popping colours that seem so, well, un-regal and irreverent. But then they have far more reverence for the monarchy that used to oppress them than we do.

Although this painting has not left its allotted place above the mantel piece in the ballroom of the Ambassador’s residence, dozens of others from around the world have in a wonderful exhibition called “Travelling Light”.

The guest curator is that irrepressible crosser of the Pond and intellectual nomad Simon Schama. The historian-broadcaster-raconteur has been allowed to pluck a selection of paintings and installations from embassies, government departments and ministries to, in his words, liberate from the eyes of politicians and diplomats and for the benefit of the general public at the White Chapel Gallery in the east End.

It is a small but wonderful collection of works. Tacita Dean’s patchwork of creepy orange tinted windows from the former Palace of the Republic in East Berlin, reflecting the ruins of East Germany’s Stasi past. This work seems to have been faught over by the Treasury and the Department of Culture and Sport with the latter winning. I love the idea of ministers jousting over favourite paintings.

Thomas Phillip’s portrait of Byron dressed as an Albanian Prince (the most famous painting in the collection which usually hangs in the British Embassy in Athens) and the Vaudeville version of a Byzantine Lady by Vanessa Bell (liberated from HM Ambassador’s residence in Berlin) speak of centuries of fascination amongst buttoned up diplomats with the unbuttoned exotica of the East. I know a few diplomats who love the less well advertised but rather endearing fancy dress aspects of diplomacy.

The exhibition doesn’t give you many hints about how paintings reflect the current state of British geo politics –who we wish to suck up to and who we wish to snub – but it gives you a taste for a curious island nation that has always sought to escape the climatic, emotional and political boundaries of Great Britain in search of lucre, luxury or power overseas.

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Read more: Culture Editor Matthew Cain on the government’s hidden art collection

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