The ambassador's residence: a sign of good taste

Many an institution, from schools and colleges to prisons, has an artist in residence these days. But to find a British embassy abroad with artists not just in residence but in the (ambassadorial) residence is, to say the least, exceptional. The embassy concerned is in Luxembourg, nicely described by a previous ambassador as "a small seat, but in the front row" - at least where European Union affairs are concerned.

The fine arts are a particular passion of the present incumbent, Nick Elam, who previously spent seven years in London as head of the FCO's cultural relations department, and his wife Helen. When they arrived in the diminutive capital in 1994, they realised there was under-utilised space on the ground floor and in the cellar of the handsome embassy residence which could be converted into two studios for painting and sculpture. Why not, they thought, invite some of the artists whose work they had admired over the past few years to spend three or four weeks in residence - effectively as members of the family - enabling them to work free of the pressures of domesticity?

The idea was cleared with London, and the first artist, sculptor Julian Bond, arrived. At first he seemed rather fazed by the embassy atmosphere, and spent several days gathering his thoughts on a sitting-room sofa. Then Elam arranged a visit to Luxembourg's huge Arbed steel works; they provided and cut some steel for Bond, and work began. The head of Luxembourg's ministry of culture, impressed by the sculptor's success in incorporating references to Luxembourg's striking geology and architecture into his pieces, offered to contribute towards the cost of an ongoing artists-in- residence programme, while Elam's old department matched the sum from funds earmarked for Luxembourg's year as Europe's City of Culture in 1995.

Further funding has come from commercial sponsorships and the sale of etchings of the city by the second artist-in-residence, Madeline Addyman. Large watercolours of the city by her husband John subsequently sold briskly for up to pounds 1,000 each.

The artists themselves have tended to find it takes a few days to adapt to the strange grandeur of ambassadorial life. But once under way, the chance to work uninterrupted by the chores of normal life has generated a high level of output. The potter Edmund de Waal, for example, produced more than 60 pots during his four chore-free weeks, and much enjoyed the stimulus of talking to embassy visitors such as the architect Denys Lasdun and the writer PD James, who was in turn determined to learn how to coax a vessel from clay. "It's sometimes good to be part of another world," de Waal says.

Painter Mali Morris and her partner, sculptor Stephen Lewis, found themselves explaining their work one morning to the then Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, who had endorsed the whole venture. The current resident, painter Gavin Maughfling, decided, after a slow start, that he had to mess up the chandeliered studio before he could make it his own. "But suddenly it clicked both in terms of subject matter and how I was going to deal with it. Being away from the support of home and friends forces you to concentrate on your work. Overall, it's very pleasant to be treated as if what one is doing is important."

So far, 12 artists have spent several consecutive weeks in residence, greatly to the enrichment of embassy life, Elam reckons: official guests often meet the artists over dinner, and are liable to be given a postprandial tour of the studios by the ambassador. A selection of work by all 12, on show for the past two weeks in a gallery (Beim Engel) in the city centre gives a good impression of the current range of artistic activity in Britain. Ambassador Elam is particularly pleased that virtually all his artists have either come back for shows in commercial galleries here, or been booked to do so. A genuine bond has been forged.

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