In the matter of distinguished MPs and their portraits, I am reminded of the billionaire who asks a Mother Superior if she will have sex with him for a fiver. “Certainly not,” replies this naturally scandalised bride of Christ. “OK, I’ll give you £1,000,” he comes back. “Don’t be absurd.” “£100,000?” “Leave me alone.” “Look, if you agree to go to bed with me,” says the man, “I’ll write you a cheque for £5bn, and you can eradicate child poverty throughout the land.” “In that event,” says the nun, “it would be my sacred duty to God to make the ultimate sacrifice for the good of the little ones.” “Right, now that we’ve agreed the principle,” he says, “let’s haggle over the price.”
So it is with the portraits of leading parliamentarians, as commissioned by that crucial democratic cornerstone, the Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art. In principle, who could object to the immortalisation of such splendid public servants? It warms the heart to imagine the tour parties of centuries hence gazing in wonderment upon the faces of Michael Howard, William Hague and Dennis Skinner. Whether such visions would induce a version of Stendhal syndrome, causing art lovers to faint at the sheer beauty, as in Florence, I cannot say. But we applaud the likes of the above, Diane Abbott and Iain Duncan Smith for giving up their precious time to sit for portraitists. It cannot be easy for those riven by lack of ego to subject themselves to such a vainglorious ordeal. Yet they have done so with stoicism.
Where things become trickier is over the cost. Without necessarily having been asked their permission, Johnny and Joanna Taxpayer have stumped up £250,000 for the various paintings, busts and sculptures, which seems rather steep.
Being the kind of moron who knows so little about art that he doesn’t even know what he likes, I cannot judge the aesthetic merit of these meisterworks.
That said, several of those reproduced in newspapers after the London Evening Standard’s Freedom of Information request (weirdly, the committee was bashful about publicising its works) do look slightly odd.
In his painting, Mr Tony Blair – and we’ll leave the Dorian Gray attic references unwritten – seems to be wearing the kind of clumping wig given to NHS chemotherapy patients in the early 1980s. It may even be the one worn by John Hurt when he played Bob Champion in the biopic of the Grand National hero.
As for the dreadlocked Ms Abbott, her portrait hints at Lennox Lewis about a year after he retired from boxing, by when he had let himself go a bit. Why she appears to be topless is none of our beeswax, though perhaps she only wears clothes in the chamber and to spare Andrew Neil’s modesty on The Daily Politics. Ms Abbott is a good egg who adds to the gaiety (as is Kenneth Clarke, pictured looking even more ruddy-cheeked than in the flesh), and, as the first black woman MP, one appreciates her cultural significance.
Whether Mr Duncan Smith’s catastrophic tenure as Conservative leader qualified him for a £10,000 portrait – one in which his dunce cap is mysteriously excised – is a more finely balanced question. No one is more frantically concerned with sparing the taxpayer needless expense than IDS and that equates to a fair number of bedroom taxees, or respite weekends away for the parents of disabled children.
Of course, he could argue that when you are merrily blowing tens of millions on useless computer software, another 10 grand will hardly break the bank.
The dilemma could not be plainer. On the one hand, fans of the Muthah of Parliaments will rejoice at an elite corps of its occupants being preserved on canvas.
On the other, invoicing the public purse for £250,000 hints at a certain tension between the stated imperative for spending austerity and the actualité.
The solution could not be simpler. In future, the painting of MPs must be devolved not to famous portraitists such as Jonathan Yeo, but to precocious primary school surrealists. Give a gifted 10-year-old a steer, and he or she could produce an excellent likeness of Mr Tony Blair with a Cruise missile jutting out of his forehead; of John Bercow (£22,000 for his portrait; the cost must be in direct inverse proportion to the size of the subject) presiding over PMQs from a booster seat; and of a sneering IDS, in Edwardian top hat and tails, kicking the crutches from the arms of Tiny Tim.
In a double whammy assault on wasteful spending, one of the bars in which MPs do their subsidised drinking could be converted into a permanent exhibition hall. Now there’s a Rogues’ Gallery to tempt even this uber-Philestine to a languid afternoon of high culture by the Thames.
My father, Ariel Sharon … and why I prefer not to know
About a dozen years ago, a hurried flick through my parents’ albums in the hunt for an old school photo unearthed, or so it seemed, the usual quixotic mish-mash. A family holiday in Devon, a long deceased dog, a Finnish au pair, me with a fag in my mouth at three, my father arm-in-arm with Ariel Sharon, another young Finn, my sister’s first day at school, another late dog …
Something in the sequence felt marginally out of sync, so I reversed a few pages. “Erm,” I muttered bemusedly, “this is going to sound crazy, but I think I am looking at a photo of you with Ariel Sharon.” “Oh, that’s when I visited Arik on his melon farm [the one near the Gaza Strip where he is now buried], in 1989 I think.” “Arik? “His friends call him Arik.” “His friends?” “Yes, his friends.”
To this day I have no notion of how my dad, a reticent man who had polio for 60 years before seeing fit to mention it, came to be friendly with the war hero/criminal and Israeli PM. You think you know them inside out, but parents must have their secrets too, and some things feel best left eternally cloaked in mystery.