A brush with power

The public is about to be granted its first glimpse of the valuable art collection housed in the Palace of Westminster. Marie Woolf, The Independent's chief political correspondent, reports
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It is one of the most extensive and valuable public art collections in Britain, and its works range from an oil painting of Venice by Sir Winston Churchill to a magnificent Epstein bronze and a cartoon engraving depicting Pitt the Younger as an "excrescence" on a dunghill. Yet the Parliamentary art collection, which spans 600 years of political life from the 14th century to 2004, is little known beyond the walls of Westminster.

With the exception of a smattering of public visitors to Parliament, only MPs, peers and Palace of Westminster staff have access to the thousands of pieces in the collection. The Independent has been given a rare glimpse of the 7,000 pieces housed at Westminster, as the palace prepares to create a website of all its artworks.

Stretching from the reign of Richard II, it is the most comprehensive collection of political art in the world. The lobbies at Westminster are studded with marble busts of MPs and Prime Ministers including Disraeli, Gladstone and Churchill. Portraits of the prominent political figures of the modern age, including Lloyd George, Lord Callaghan and even Enoch Powell, line the Commons corridors. Westminster also conceals hundreds of cartoons lampooning political figures, such as the acidic depictions of Sheridan and Pitt by James Gillray. But it is not only political ephemera that the Parliamentary art collection houses. A print of Windsor Castle by the Prince of Wales sits alongside a melancholy portrait of the heir to the throne by Andrew Ratcliffe. There is a fine collection of 1970s screen prints, and the Stranger's cafeteria, where MPs, policemen and researchers mingle at lunchtime, is decorated with lively watercolours of typically British scenes by Jake Sutton. They include The Last Night of the Proms, and a colourful depiction of the Queen's carriage taking her to the state opening of Parliament.

The collection is worth tens of millions of pounds, and many of its pieces are on loan to the National Portrait Gallery and other institutions. When a series of 14th-century statues of kings were loaned to the British Museum, they were valued at £1m each. The six life-size statues, commissioned by Richard II, survived when most of the old Parliament was consumed by flames in 1834. Although the rich reds and greens and the kings' gilded crowns have been stripped of colour, they continue to cast their regal gaze at the MPs who rush through Westminster Hall each day.

The art collection has evolved as Parliament has expanded. The recent opening of Portcullis House led to a string of new commissions, including a triptych of Tony Blair, Charles Kennedy and William Hague by Jonathan Yeo, son of Tim Yeo, the front-bench Tory spokesman. The palace now has a designated curatorial staff, a committee of MPs to oversee new acquisitions and a budget of £100,000 a year to make new purchases.

But it was not always so. The history of the collection has been patchy. Much of the art was sold at a discount by generous owners or donated by benefactors and artists. Sir Patrick Cormack, who was head of Parliament's Works of Art committee between 1987 and 2001, had an annual buying budget of £5,000 for acquisitions when he took over, but still managed to build up a complete set of portraits or busts of 20th-century prime ministers, including two fine portraits of Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher, by Henry Mee. The Wilson portrait shows the former Labour prime minister in a familiar pose, with wafts of smoke rising from his pipe, while Mee's portrait of Margaret Thatcher shows the iron lady looking severe in her trademark blue suit and pearls. "We did buy some work, but we benefited from the generosity of many benefactors and artists who accepted nominal fees," says Sir Patrick. "With a very modest budget, we did well."

One of the finest works in the collection is a 1909 oil painting by Emily Childers of MPs, including Keir Hardie, the first leader of the Labour party, socialising on the House of Commons terrace. The picture was acquired from the Church of Scotland at a favourable price after it was spotted in a catalogue by Sir Patrick. Jacob Epstein's bronze bust of Ramsay McDonald, meanwhile, was donated by the family of the first Labour Prime Minister, and the family of Rab Butler paid for a bust the Tories' "nearly man" who served as chancellor, foreign secretary and home secretary in the 1950s, but never became prime minister. The Parliamentary Labour Party paid for a bust of Nye Bevan, architect of the National Health Service.

MPs are allowed to choose pictures from the collection to decorate their offices, and some pieces have been fought over. But the majority of the collection is on the walls of the palace, including its committee rooms and corridors. The palace took 20 years to build and was almost complete on the death of Sir Charles Barry, its architect, in 1860.The Prince Regent, Albert, who was a great patron of contemporary artists, was responsible for the much of the work on show in the House of Commons today. For 20 years his Fine Arts Commission, set up in 1841, commissioned statuary, carved panels and mural paintings and held popular competitions for artists.

Some of the Victorian work is less appealing today, but it is of great interest to art historians. A series of wall paintings in the upper waiting hall are forerunners of the Pre-Raphaelites, depicting scenes from British history and England's finest literary works. Sir John Tenniel's St Cecilia, from Dryden's A Song for St Cecilia's Day, shows Cecilia looking mildly deranged as she turns her eyes towards heaven. Charles West Cope was more successful with his depictions of the death of Lara from Lord Byron's Lara and "The Clerk's Tale" from The Canterbury Tales. The wall paintings were damaged by salt sediment and boarded up for decades until, under the guidance of the current curator Malcolm Hay, they were restored.

Michael Liversidge, head of the art-history department at the University of Bristol, says that the palace collection is "very significant". "It is nationally important. The early 1840s was a period when the Prince Regent was playing a major role in commissioning British painting. It immediately preceded the Pre-Raphaelite period. Victorian art went out of fashion between the First World War and the 1960s. But from the 1970s there was a huge revival of interest."

Tony Banks MP, the current head of the collections committee, has tried to ensure that the collection reflects more modern tastes. He has commissioned a number of works, including a portrait of the left-wing firebrand MP Diane Abbott, and another of Michael Foot by Robert Lenkiewicz. "The collection is full of gems. This is the most significant collection of political art in the world, and it is our intention to open it up to maximum public access through the internet. We have already put as much art on the public line of route as possible. But you have to remember, this is a working building, and not an art gallery."