The art of government: a first glimpse inside the state's vast collection of works

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Indy Politics

In his final years in Downing Street, Harold Wilson was increasingly beset by fears that the security services were plotting against him. His paranoia cannot have been helped by a painting which hung in his study at No 10, The Watchers by Daphne Reynolds, an abstract image of sinister hooded figures.

The oil painting is one of 2,500 belonging to the Government Art Collection (GAC), a body of works from more than 400 locations around the world which for the first time have been collated by the Public Catalogue Foundation, a charity dedicated to documenting every piece of art in a UK public collection.

The Government owns 13,000 art works in total, including sculptures, watercolours, textiles, photographs, videos and prints. Its oil paintings range from a famous portrait of a jewel-bedecked Queen Elizabeth I by Marcus Geeraerts the Younger to works by Laurence Lowry, Stanley Spencer, Paul Rego and Damien Hirst.

At any one time, 75 per cent of the works in the collection are on display in government buildings around Britain, as well as in embassies and ambassadors' residences overseas. Penny Johnson, the director of the GAC, explained: "We look to find links between the works of art and the places we display them."

In his Downing Street office, Gordon Brown has a painting which also hung on the wall in Tony Blair's time, Sheffield Suburb by John Piper. One new work which is about to be hung in his study is Flower Piece by Winifred Nicholson, a domestic scene viewed from a window over plant pots.

In the collection

Byzantine Lady (1912), by Vanessa Bell

This heavily stylised portrait was purchased by the Government Art Collection in 1977. It is currently displayed in the British embassy in Berlin.

Flower piece, by Winifred Nicholson

This domestic scene looking out through a window past plant pots filled with blooms is about to be hung in the Prime Minister's Downing Street office.

Curl (1997-98), by Fiona Rae

Hanging at the British embassy in Washington, this was one of the first works by a Young British Artist to be acquired by the GAC. Rae was nominated for the Turner Prize in 1991.

The Integrity of Belgium (1914), by Walter Sickert

The image of a Belgian officer at Lige in 1914 is currently in the UK but usually hangs in the ambassador's residence in Brussels.

The Watchers, by Daphne Reynolds

The artist called this painting The Watcher, but for Harold Wilson, who as Prime Minister chose it to hang in his study in Downing Street, it became The Watchers. Towards the end of his time in office, Wilson became convinced he was being monitored by MI5.

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