Friday, 2 September 2011

The Government Art Collection at the Whitechapel Gallery

As yesterday was the first Thursday of the month, all across East London art galleries stayed open late and the streets were full of art buyers, art viewers and more than a few students who were just there for the free beer.  First Thursdays are a monthly event but with over 100 participating galleries you get to see something new every time. Yesterday I and an Accidental pal wandered along to see a particular exhibition that was on at the Whitechapel Gallery.  Seven figures from the British government have selected their favourite pieces from the government art collection, and currently they hang together in wonderful eclecticism in E1.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Whitechapel Gallery building itself is rather glorious, although you wouldn't necessarily think it from the outside.  A lovely old stone and iron staircase ran up one wall, and doors and wooden partition walls still featured wobbly yet original leaded glass panels.

Behind a display of charity shop porcelain trinkets lies "Government Art Collection: At Work".  The first of five exhibitions in a series on government art, it occupies a single room featuring everything from 16th century paintings of Queen Elizabeth I to peculiar headless metal sculptures.  Who from the government has picked the pieces is almost as peculiar as the artworks they have chosen.  Samantha Cameron, the prime minister's wife (who is not technically 'government' herself, although as the Accidental pal pointed out has to see a lot of the collection on the walls of her home) features heavily, selecting some rather unattractive sculptures.  The favourites of a dame and ambassador to Moscow, with a penchant for vast, slightly lugubrious Bohemian royals, and Sir John Sawers, the head of the Secret Intelligence Service, also feature heavily. Nick Clegg chose a rather large painting of a lonesome and dull thermos flask.  Make of that what you will.  SamCam did select a rather nice Lowry to give her her due.  Even some Tracy Emin made it into the exhibition (courtesy of the Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, Ed Vaizey), although frankly her biro-y scribbles look like they may have been created by a bored policy wonk in a tedious meeting.   

Having had our fill of governmental art, and completed an interminable visitor experience questionnaire, we headed out to visit some other galleries, to see rather less prestigious art, fresh from the artist's studio.  We saw an entire show of large technicolour vultures, peculiar paintings of people with felt-tip pens stuck to their faces and the standard array of daubings that could, quite frankly, be anything.  We supped a couple of strong mojitos amid a Cuban launch party for, well we weren't quite sure what, but it was very jolly.  
No photos allowed of the Government Art Collection so here's some paintings and a peculiar sculpture from another gallery on Redchurch Street
After all the art we felt in need of a little sustenance, so headed to the Albion Cafe for supper.  They supplied us with glasses of kir and beer, and tasty, hearty pies of fish and rabbit; although it felt oddly multi-seasonal to eat such wintery food with an open door nearby allowing in the semi-warm night air.  Service was efficient if slightly humourless.  When a bright blue balloon drifted in from the art parties outside our waiter look briefly baffled then placed it solemnly on a shelf along with the ironed napkins. And there it remained as the punters kept coming, and we slipped out and headed home, fortified by pies and Lord Mandelson's fondness for Flemish sculpture.  


  1. I have to confess that I have never taken advantage of first Thursdays. One more thing I need to do!

  2. Definitely worth it - although it's probably more fun in the summer when it's warm and not so rainy!


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