Diplomatic victory in France for British contemporary art

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The Independent Online

In one of the most beautiful old houses in Paris stands a large British Rail double arrow symbol, lovingly created by a trainspotter-turned-artist. Near by is a painting named after a shark repellent and two cryptic messages written in neon-lit, white glass.

The works are part of a semi-permanent display of contemporary British art that will be shown off to leading figures in the French art world at the residence of the British ambassador tomorrow.

The setting and the display may appear mismatched: the old and the modern; the traditional and the non-traditional; the diplomatic and the in-your-face. But these choices are deliberate. The works cover some of the spikiest and most admired of contemporary British artists. All 12 pieces in the display use non-traditional materials, from food to aluminium to commercial house paints.

All have been bought by the Government's art collection specifically for lengthy display in the British ambassador's residence in Paris – a magnificent 18th-century house bought from Napoleon's favourite sister by the Duke of Wellington before he won the Battle of Waterloo.

In a room along the corridor from Station by Darren Almond, a gleaming, white resin tribute to the defunct BR, there is a bed once owned by Napoleon's sister, Pauline Borghese (and used on one occasion by Margaret Thatcher). A painting by Damien Hirst of rows of coloured blobs, using commercial house paints, hangs near a room containing an elaborate oil portrait of the Duke of Wellington.

Susie Westmacott, wife of the ambassador, Sir Peter Westmacott, said: "The works are at the cutting edge of the contemporary British art scene, which is much admired – even envied – here in France. The house is steeped in French history, in British history and the history of relations between the two countries.

"Putting these works of art in this house might seem daring, or inappropriate, but actually the juxtaposition is stunning. The house is so old and so French, but also so British. The works represent all that is most bold and imaginative about modern Britain. We feel very lucky to have them."

For security reasons, the 12 works of art cannot be put on display to the French public. They will, however, be shown to some of the leading French contemporary artists, art writers and museum and gallery administrators.

The works also include pieces by Rachel Whiteread, the first woman to win the Turner Prize for contemporary art, Cerith Wyn Evans, Catherine Yass, Eva Weinmayr, Gayle Chong Kwan, Alex Pollard and Julian Opie.

Whether the representatives of the French art world will grasp the subtle, self-mocking nostalgia of Station is unclear. Almond, 37, was a train-spotter in his youth. His sculpture of the British Rail "arrows of indecision" is accompanied by a red and silver plate showing his own name. The plate copies the style used by the late BR to "name" its diesel and electric locomotives.

Often the works bought by the Government Art Collection for embassies abroad have some connection with the host nation. In recent years, however, the collection has also been buying works by contemporary artists to spread the word that Britain has one of the world's most lively and imaginative art scenes. The Paris embassy has been chosen to receive an extended loan partly because of the art connections of Paris, partly because the ambassador's residence is regarded as the most beautiful of all British diplomatic buildings.

The residence was purchased by the Duke of Wellington in 1814 from Pauline Borghese, Napoleon's youngest sister, before the defeated emperor had escaped from exile in Elba. The house still contains much of the furniture that came with the original sale. "Pauline is ever-present here," Lady Westmacott said. "I sometimes feel that she is my landlady."

Borghese was a controversial, even scandalous figure. It was said of her that, like her older brother, she tried to conquer Europe. The difference was she made the attempt one man at a time. A challenging, unconventional art collection is perhaps not so out of place in Borghese's former home.