Visit to the Government Art Collection

Tucked away off Tottenham Court Road in a nondescript yard can be found a building housing the Government Art Collection which isn't normally open to the public. At any one time two-thirds of the collection is distributed amongst government buildings both at home and abroad. The art works furnish places like 10 Downing Street, the Treasury and many overseas embassies and high commissions.

My visit to the home of the GAC on Saturday 19th November had been postponed from Open House weekend back in September; it also fitted in very well with a walk I was doing in Marylebone that afternoon being only a ten minute walk away.

Although works from the collection are frequently lent out to galleries to supplement exhibitions, for the first time in its 113 year history art from the collection is being showcased in a series of exhibitions at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. There are five separate exhibitions; the second one is currently in progress which is a selection of works chosen by contemporary artist Cornelia Parker. This runs until 4th December and then the following exhibition will be works selected by historian Simon Schama which starts on 16th December.  A list of all the exhibitions is here. Artworks featured in the entire series will then tour galleries in Birmingham and Belfast.

The permanent home of the GAC is only occasionally open to the public; for Open House weekend and open for group bookings for 3 evenings a month. Their diary is full until January 2013 so I was very lucky to be able to get in.

We were taken round by a very knowledgeable guide whose name I omitted to record. 

The first picture I saw was one that remained my favourite from the whole tour. C R W Nevinson’s St Paul’s from the South seen through the smog from Waterloo station; a very atmospheric picture.

We also saw a mini version of Nelson's Ship in a Bottle which is currently on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, Peas are the New Beans by Bob and Roberta Smith which had proved particularly popular with ministers because of its allusion to bean counters and a very detailed View of Florence by Edward Lear where you felt you could almost step into the painting.

We were told that the collection comprised of some 13,000 works of mostly British art. Their budget used to be £200,000 a year; it is now zero.

It is hard to believe but we were told that one of the reasons in the past they had bought large paintings was to save on wallpaper! The emphasis is now on promoting British art; the artworks will be seen by thousands of people around the world.

The tour included a visit to the workshop where we were shown the effects of acid paper on old prints and told of the process which protects paintings in countries with a high humidity; they are given a plastic backed frame, sealed with a metal tape and hung so the picture doesn't touch the wall.

Our tour finished with a visit to what would in any other gallery be a store but here it was a showroom.

Details and pictures of the paintings held in the collection are on their website but make a date in your diary to visit the Whitechapel Art Gallery to see some of them in the flesh so to speak which will be a lot easier to get into than visiting the GAC itself.

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