The tradition of honouring political figures with public portraiture stretches back hundreds of years — through oil paintings, marble statues or bronze busts. The UK Parliamentary Art Collection is full of portraits of notable British figures, although the weighting of the parliamentary collection is, undeniably, chiefly towards white middle-class men. It tells a story not just of the history of our politics, but also how that history is managed, and who gets to have a place in it.
When the new Palace of Westminster was under construction in the 19th century, the Fine Arts Commission intended on covering the newly built walls with paintings — ideally by British artists. The intention was to rouse national interest and illustrate Britain’s refusal to fall behind its European neighbours in artistic endeavours. This included many portraits of significant figures, chiefly members of the royal family, as well as scenes of British military success, such as the Spanish Armada. However, the Commision never managed to fill the newly built Houses of Parliament, chiefly due to financial issues, and over time the blank spaces on the walls of the palace were plastered instead in wallpaper.
In the 1950s there was a revival of the Fine Arts Commision as it was agreed that there was a need to capture and celebrate the history of British politics. By the 1950s, there were huge gaps in political history that had no artistic documentation, it was felt that many significant political figures had been forgotten. This resulted in the compilation of a list of notable figures that, it was felt, had earned a space on the walls of the Palace of Westminster. Many political figures that merited a portrait were finally recognised, such as William Wilberforce and Neville Chamberlain.
In more recent years, the focus on political portraiture has at long last become more inclusive. Of course, the huge oil paintings of Queen Victoria in the Houses of Parliament remain, but now every MP, despite gender, race and sexulality has been offered to have their portrait captured — not through painting, but through the more accessible and democratising medium of photography. In 2017 the MPs Portrait Project worked alongside photographer Chris McAndrew and succeeded in capturing universal and up to date portraits of British MPs to be viewed on the Parliament website. The aim was to ‘humanise the public figures responsible for running our country’¹. This project went down a storm with the general public ‘the pictures went down well on social media – and showed MPs weren’t “alien species” but a “reflection of us as real people”’. ²
Today, other projects also attempt to capture and celebrate the achievements of MPs in UK Parliament, such as 209 Women. This exhibition focuses specifically on the 209 women MPs in UK Parliament, individually photographed by 209 female photographers. The exhibition launched at Portcullis House, allowing for all the female MPs to have their portrait hang in parliamentary residence. Like the MP Portrait Project, it also humanises the women that manage our country. 209 Women arguably goes one step further, as it captures each MP for the woman she is, depicting these female MPs and their personalities, also the relationship between each MP and her photographer is clear. The photographers endeavoured to capture the essence of each MP: 209 Women, then, acts as a good middle ground between the universal archival nature of the recent MP portrait project and the traditional, more personal element of portraiture paintings.
The tradition of parliamentary portraiture is continuing into the 21st century, and although the mediums may evolve from traditional paintings and statues to photography, this allows for more inclusivity, allowing more MPs to be recognised and praised for their work.
1. Carrie Kleiner, ‘Making History: Official Portraits and Open Images’, Parliamentary Digital Service, (2017), <https://pds.blog.parliament.uk/2017/07/21/mp-official-portraits-open-source-images/> [accessed 6th March 2019].
Georgina Pattinson, ‘MP’s portraits: Photos show ‘human’ side of Parliament’, BBC News, (28 July 2017), <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-parliaments-40755201>[accessed 11th March 2019].