The politics of art
Philip Mould on the buying and selling of political artefacts There is money to be made in politics. Over the last two months Sotheby's has been combing the market for political art and antiques for its first sale directed exclu- sively at a potential clientele of political enthusiasts. Departmental experts, normal- ly used to assessing objects on the basis of style, craftsmanship and attribution, are now trying to evaluate political sex-appeal: is a bad portrait of Thatcher worth more than a good one of Macmillan? Will Peel's inkstand have collectors scrabbling to bid, or passing by oblivious, in favour of Glad- stone's slippers?
These considerations are niceties in a market that has been growing steadily over the last 20 years and which now finds itself supported by a large network of collectors. At its centre are the House of Commons and House of Lords, both of which have their own curator and specialist committees, who hawkishly survey the art world for high- quality items of relevance to Parliament and its history. Their respective chairmen, Sir Patrick Cormack and Lord Gowrie, have developed a wily knowledge of the market's foibles, and with limited funds have suc- ceeded in enhancing the Palace's holdings in recent years with portraits, topographies and memorabilia. Across the party lines and ranks there are individual collectors such as Lord Baker, Lord St John-Stevas and Tony Banks. Banks, who is devoted to collecting Wilkes and Fox, will actively buy and sell other political art and artefacts to fund his passion, and intends to bequeath his growing collection of 18th-century radi- calism to the House.
Politicians undeniably have professional pride in collecting other politicians these historical figures were, after all, pre- vious incumbents of their own positions but there is another group of ardent buyers outside professional politics, who some- times part with large sums to bring a piece of their hero home.
Politics seems better able to create his- torical heroes than other professions. Wit, conviction, courage and vision in the face of adversity and opposition can make these often flawed individuals charismatic figures for those with money and an interest in constitutional history. More emotive than great literature and science, and less tran- sient than sporting prowess, high-quality objects and images associated with great statesmen and prime ministers top the league table of commercial desirability along with military heroes like Nelson and Wellington (also a prime minister).
Predictably, to date at least, it is the Tory statesmen and prime ministers who have fared best. Sir Winston Churchill as artist never fails to rally: Tory prime minister, Bust of Charles James Fox (1749-1806) by Sir Richard Westmacott, RA adventurer, historian, world statesman, half American and, as if that were not enough, copyist and pastichist of Impressionism the most accessible art form ever invented — he did not altogether surprise the art world last year when one of his works sold for £150,000 to the carpet tycoon Lord Harris.
Benjamin Disraeli, prime minister and novelist, not only has the advantage of espousing one nation conservatism, he was also Jewish. This adds up to a very substan- tial potential clientele with means. To thrive, the market needs enough supply to create competitive fervour, and Disraeli spent enough hours in artists' studios to form a substantial iconographical record which was replicated and duplicated in vol- ume. Today, he is so desirable as an histori- cal subject that I have even encountered portraits of anonymous contemporaries of his who have been wickedly 're-christened' as the statesman, or physically altered in hair and face to resemble him with a view to duping the market. Other grandees of this commercial category include Pitt the Younger (recently bought by the Society of Lincoln's Inn where he was called to the Bar) and Peel, of whom contemporary por- traits of quality are now so scarce that they rarely surface at auction.
As well as 'one-off' political mavericks such as Richard Cobden and William Cob- bett — images of whom were both recently bought by the House of Commons, and of whom both have other groups of enthusi- asts or societies to keep their names alive — there are the historical figures whose careers embody politics, but whose sphere of activities is wider and more embracing. From the 17th century, men like Oliver Cromwell, Algernon Sydney and the philosopher John Locke are all broad com- mercial successes, as are politically con- cerned writers of the next century like Swift and Johnson. Adam Smith, the 'founder of modern economics', has a legion of thank- ful and affluent adherents, including an institute that bears his name, although wor- ship is hindered by the absence of any con- temporary painted record of his features.
A few British politicians have interna- tional appeal. Churchill's prices are known to be bolstered by avid collectors from across the Atlantic, partly through nation- alist regard for his American mother, but there are also those such as Pitt the Elder, John Wilkes and Isaac Barre (soldier, MP and advocate of national independence) whose American sympathies were suffi- ciently regarded for their names to be added to the country's geography (Pitts- burg and Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania). Adam Smith has a following in Japan, and a good portrait of Baroness Thatcher will find takers across the globe.
A question now flitting past the auction- eers is whether New Labour's plutocrats will feel disposed to collect their ideologi- cal forefathers in a way similar to their Conservative counterparts. Unless radically appealing like Wilkes and Fox, or with their own cult following like Lloyd George, in the past non-Tory statesmen and politi- cians have rarely achieved the same market status. But even if this were to change, and some rich potential collectors did decide it was now time to look to the party's founders, the problem is one of supply: not only is Labour's immediate history shorter, and protagonists consequently fewer, they also spent less time being painted and owned fewer valuable objects of personal association.
The only bust of the first party leader, Keir Hardie, is a posthumous one by Benno Schotz of which there is a cast in the House of Commons, and Labour prime ministers, including the face-proud Harold Wilson, infrequently sat for formal com- missions. Although there is a significant subsidiary market in trades union history and memorabilia, including outstanding posters and banners (an enthusiasm of for- mer trades union leaders Joe Gormley and Ron Todd), there is a dearth of those high- quality historical objects and images of the movement which satisfy the demands of art and antique world chic. Since the demise of Soviet communism, and a lifting of trade restrictions, those entrepreneurs who have been busy import- ing high-quality modem art from Russia have sometimes found it worth their while to bring in the odd president, either in bust or painted form. Russian warehouses are full of slain statues and images of commu- nist heroes which have been uprooted from parks and town squares and civic walls and left to moulder in disgrace. Paradoxically, when some of these impressive artefacts make it to these shores, they are not always bought by those with the closest political affinities. I was recently asked by an old- guard Tory whether I could locate a Lenin bust for his garden. He is a keen collector of Conservative prime ministers, and his reason for wanting the revolutionary states- man for his rockery turned out to be more atavistic than artistic: he acknowledged a slightly gruesome satisfaction in parading, for all to see, the dismembered head of a vanquished foe.
The reason Sotheby's is holding its first political auction is because it recognises that, for the right objects, there is a clien- tele who are not only knowledgeable about the art and antiques market, where high prices can be justified for historical and artistic artefacts, but who are now increas- ingly bound up in a new fashion: politics. For those who have made money, politics often develops into an abiding interest the astonishing fees that our ex-prime min- isters can charge businessmen for speaking- engagements is testament to this. It would seem that two decades of affluence and Thatcherite conservatism, and great politi- cal upheaval abroad, have rejuvenated an interest in our political heritage, primarily for Tories but also for those who have rea- son to identify with the dispossessed radi- cals and opponents of the establishment. Added to this, the art world has been witnessing an interesting erosion of the age-old British prejudice against having non-family faces on the walls. Regardless of blood connections, distinguished por- traits will now be bought at auction as inde- pendent art works, and the question of whether this latest purchase is your esteemed ancestor has become somewhat irrelevant. This subtle shift away from a rigidly old-fashioned approach to collecting is of great significance in a highly conserva- tive market. The spirit at least of New Labour will be felt at auction in July.
Philip Mould is an art dealer; and since 1988 Works of Art Adviser to the House of Com- mons and Lords. Sotheby's Political Sale will take place on 15 July.