Posing for peace

Blair and Bush do it. So do Chirac and Sharon. But what are the rules for starring in a diplomatic picture, asks Mark Irving. And why has the ritual changed so little over the past 400 years?
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So, for August, we are spared the usual political theatre - smiling premiers seen walking into the international conference building, the portentous signing of new treaties, the rictus grin handshakes for the cameras afterwards. What really matters is that everyone is smiling while looking confident and solemn at the same time. It's a tricky balance but then these events are anything but natural. Instead, the nervous politicians, the dead-eyed generals and security agents in dark glasses are participating in a delicate tableau, one that has roots going back at least 400 years.

So, for August, we are spared the usual political theatre - smiling premiers seen walking into the international conference building, the portentous signing of new treaties, the rictus grin handshakes for the cameras afterwards. What really matters is that everyone is smiling while looking confident and solemn at the same time. It's a tricky balance but then these events are anything but natural. Instead, the nervous politicians, the dead-eyed generals and security agents in dark glasses are participating in a delicate tableau, one that has roots going back at least 400 years.

Political choreography isn't a new phenomenon. In 1604, politicians were working the audience just as hard, even if they didn't have to contend with a 24-hour media circus. Walk into the National Portrait Gallery's Tudor room and you see a painting showing diplomats posing for their public, papers in hand, or their hands on their hearts. It's called The Somerset House Conference and sincerity oozes through the canvas. But unlike their more media-savvy descendants, these men don't smile. In this high-wire world where eyes are glued to every move, appearances matter. When England concluded its vital peace treaty with Spain that year, the audience for the signing represented in this picture might have numbered only a few dozen people, but stagecraft was no less important to those participating in an event that formally ended a state of war between the two countries that had existed since 1585. The death of Elizabeth I, Spain's greatest antagonist, the previous year and the accession of James I freed up space for diplomatic manoeuvring. This painting, and another which it closely resembles, has recently been on display at Somerset House, London - the location of the actual event 400 years ago. Although not quite identical, both pictures - which curator Karen Hearn, expert in 16th- and 17th-century British art at Tate, believes are the earliest examples of their kind - show the treaty delegates seated at a table covered by a sumptuous Anatolian carpet, the English delegation of five to the right and the Spanish team of six to the left. Perhaps the most intriguing thing about these pictures is the way they strive to re-create the actual circumstances in which the negotiations were handled.

"The sitters do seem to be seated in the way they actually were seated. There are Spanish and English accounts of this," explains Hearn. "But the paintings are a complete construction, with the sitters' heads depicted with different angles. This makes sense when you bear in mind how busy these people were. The man on the left to the rear is Juan Fernandez de Velasco, Duke of Frias and the Constable of Castile, who had been authorised by Philip III of Spain to conclude the treaty with the English. His head seems to have been painted by a different hand a little later than the rest of the painting. We know in fact that he wasn't present during the negotiations, pleading illness as he worked instead to influence the discussions from across the English Channel."

The image, therefore, celebrates the fruits of hard negotiation, with attention given to the inkstand, blobs of ink and the parchment that has just been signed. Several members of the working party are shown with their hands on their heart, fingers pointing to their personal insignia, in gestures that suggest the taking of personal oaths. James I was not present. Neither was Philip III nor the Archdukes of the Spanish Netherlands, a crucial party to the talks. The result is an image that focuses on those managing the pragmatic issues of the day rather than representing the hieratic pomp and circumstance of those directing their efforts from behind the scenes. "We don't know why it was commissioned or who commissioned it," says Hearn. "The presence of a Spanish inscription suggests that it was created with an intimate Spanish audience in mind to start with."

That said, it's noticeable that the way English negotiator Robert Cecil is painted exactly matches his official portrait likeness. (He's in the foreground on the right.) Since this is the nearest ambitious courtiers got to creating their brand image, it posits the possibility that he too had more than a passing interest in being included in this portrait.

Just as people try to read through the surface statements and gestures made by international politicians today, so this image offers an intriguing subtext. The carpet occupying centre stage was, Hearn says, at least 100 years old by 1604 and may well have come from the private collection of Henry VIII, who was known to have inherited some fine examples. Is it here, then, just as a luxury item underlining the grandeur of the event or is it a reference to a period when England and Spain, in the form of the marriage of Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine of Aragon had once been firm allies? If so, then from the Spanish point of view such mollifying symbols were sorely needed. Present at these negotiations were enemies such as Nottingham, the grey-bearded figure to the back and the man who saw off the Armada, and Charles Blount, later Earl of Devonshire, who while governor of Ireland effectively dealt with previous Spanish attempts to interfere there. But if sitting at the same table caused either party's blood pressure to rise, there were always distracting pleasures to be had in the parties and amusements laid on by the English for their fellow negotiators. The courtiers detailed to look after the Spanish delegation at Somerset House included the King's Men, the group of players of whom William Shakespeare was one.

The art of picturing high-end diplomacy for public consumption is a sophisticated affair, but it's always designed to present a very simple message: everything is going to plan. Managing events such as the official conclusion of hostilities, the signing of treaties, letters of agreement, or the handing over of power depends on a set of principles that remain consistent, whether the parties are 21st-century or 17th-century antagonists. Once you recognise these, you better understand the peculiarly staged nature of international diplomacy and can pick out the subtle signals sent out by the political actors involved.

First, there have to be tables. These can be a row of school desks covered with an inoffensive cloth if circumstances are difficult, or, as in the instance of General MacArthur's acceptance of the Japanese surrender on the deck of USS Missouri in September 1945, one tiny desk alone. The simplicity of this piece of furniture adds significantly to the poignancy of the moment that signalled the end of the Second World War in the East. Most delegates at more equivocal, less one-sided events, however, find that grand, impossibly large tables laden with name-plates, inkwells and refreshments create a more reassuring, self-consciously important atmosphere, one that is more conducive to the sense that history is in the making. Making people sit down is a crucial achievement in itself. It means they are less likely to lunge at each other's throats and miming the social niceties of the dining table is a good way of getting touchy folk to behave, however temporarily. Not sitting down can be equally powerful: compare MacArthur standing the other side of the table from the crouched, diminutive figure of the Japanese army chief, and you have a perfect gesture symbolising America's emerging global dominance. Peacetime affords the opportunity for such high-level meetings to be more elegantly furnished. Whether it's the White House, the Elysée Palace or Downing Street, the chairs are more properly described as fauteuils and Louis Quinze in aspiration if not in fact.

Second, there has to be something to sign: this may seem self-evident, but weeks, even months or years of painstaking negotiations - for which, read a complicated mix of cajoling, bullying and lying - can amount to nothing if the different parties don't get the ink on the paper in the right place. It's wise to make this document large and pompous-looking so that you get the delegates' attention. Setting it within a leather binding is good, if unavoidably conservative. (Tip: don't do this in India, where the cow is sacred.) Larger than life props like these - lollipop desk microphones, ergonomic earpieces, bulging briefcases - underline the effectively theatrical character of the whole enterprise. How many times have we seen news footage of ministers passing the pen they've just used to their counterparts with a practised grin and chuckle? Of course they have their own pens but it's not the same: there are personal pens and there are treaty pens and self-consciously sharing the latter provides in miniature a choreographic metaphor for the co-operative theme running through the event. The signing of economic, security and legislative agreements is thus transformed from the workaday into the historically significant - or so vainglorious ministers would have us believe.

Third, and most importantly of all, there has to be an audience. Today, with our countless news networks, this can amount to hundreds of millions of people, but whether it's for the benefit of a close coterie of other diplomats or for the worldwide public in general, the stagecraft demanded of the core players is the same. When you see King Abdullah of Jordan, say, conversing with President George W Bush - the small talk is always innocuous, the vocal timbre low, unhurried, with Bush's apple-pie bonhomie working its best - the chairs are positioned at a 35-45 degree slant, presenting their occupants to us rather than to each other. What this gives us is the civilised world on show, engaged in discourse, a vision of courtly etiquette articulating the old Churchillian adage that jaw-jaw is better than war-war - and Churchill, today even more than ever, is the moral lodestone consistently invoked by the leaders of the coalition forces. The courtly pretensions continue out from the dining or drawing room settings to exterior spaces such as the Rose Garden of the White House - rose gardens lie at the very heart of the courtly tradition - where Bush and Blair and others stand at sharp-edged podia and deliver their noble-sounding encomiums to a press corps disarmed by the prevailing scent of obsequious formality. As theatre, it's hackneyed and repetitive, but the actors seem to think it works. We, the public, have seen it all before and don't necessarily expect anything new, but that's not what counts. This isn't Question Time, a general election or Super Tuesday, modes of dangerous contact between us and our leaders. But events like these - the treaties, the agreements, the sombre accords - are something else entirely: it's making history. And making history makes potential Mt Rushmores out of every poised presidential turn of the head, every perfectly phrased sentence.

So when the choreography doesn't quite work out, when the players are wrong-footed, we sit up and notice. Remember when Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat were called to Camp David by President Clinton in the summer of 2000? There was that fascinating moment when both Middle East leaders, faced by the prospect of having to go through the same doorway, produced a strange little dance with each man declining to go before the other. Whether this was because they were both trying to demonstrate their painfully exquisite courtesy to the watching world or because, as some have thought, each didn't trust the other enough to turn his back on him, it revealed just how important small scale gestures can seem on the wider international scene.

The art of picturing diplomacy is, however, subject to the same kind of prejudices that determine the telling of history itself. While images of this or that treaty being ratified imply a superficial evening of scores and a supposed desire to wipe the slate clean, the imperative of realpolitik is that no injury, no unbalanced negotiation is ever forgotten. Gerard ter Borch's exquisite painting on copper in the National Gallery's collection showing the ratification of the Treaty of Munster in 1648 doesn't so much depict a meeting of minds as a wholesale Dutch victory over their former Spanish overlords. While the Spanish are represented by two delegates, the Dutch have six, with scores of onlookers eagerly witnessing the moment when the Spanish grip finally loosened. While such images serve as important historical documents - occasionally, as in Ter Borch's case, they qualify as very good art - they also provide a warning. Look at Fortunino Matania's gloomy painting of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, showing British Prime Minister Lloyd George seated with pen in hand, and you find an unsettling image in which suspicion and mutual hatred are unmistakably etched on the faces of everyone present. Hanging in the Imperial War Museum, its lessons are there for everyone to read. Whether they are shown as paintings or two-minute news reports on the BBC or CNN, moments such as these are strange one-act plays in which the hope and folly of human nature are played out for us all to see.