A day in the life of …

Philippa Martin has worked at the Government Art Collection as Curator of Information and Research (Historical) for seven years. She is responsible for researching and writing interpretation for works in the Collection made before 1900.

  • Select Image
  • Select Image

As Curator of Information and Research (Historical) you are based in the main office of the GAC headquarters. What exactly is your role?

Each week groups of works leave the main building of the Government Art Collection (GAC), to be displayed in Government buildings in the UK or abroad. Almost all the works are accompanied by interpretation, whether that is captions to be mounted on a wall; a folder of information or laminated pages of text. These provide information for the ministers, civil servants and diplomats who work alongside the GAC works. They can then talk about the works with visitors and at the same time help the GAC to promote British art, history and culture. I am responsible for the information on 16th- to 19th-century works.

Can you describe a typical day for us?

My main focus is to keep abreast of which works are next due to leave the building and what kind of information is most suitable for their new location. Once the most pressing project is identified, I go through the list of works. This is the most interesting part of my day. Some of the works may be familiar because I have researched and written about them in the past, others I will be studying for the first time. There are some 13,500 works in the Collection, so inevitably sometimes we know little about the work in question. Once I have collated the information in our files, I go downstairs to the GAC workshop to study the works themselves. I consider the quality of each work, its narrative and details I might want to draw attention to. I also check the backs of frames and canvases for clues to the work's history, such as labels indicating previous owners or where it might have been exhibited. Returning to my desk, I begin researching the less-familiar works. This often involves a certain amount of decision making and compromise.

Can you give us an example of a painting you've been working on?

For example a minister recently selected a view of Windsor Castle (image 2), painted by British marine painter Samuel Scott (c.1702–1772). There was little information on the painting in the GAC file and an initial search uncovered no evidence of Scott ever having painted Windsor Castle. With three Scott paintings and numerous prints in the Collection, I decide it would be a good investment – and I just about have time – to purchase the Catalogue of the Works of Samuel Scott, published by the Walpole Society in 1980. When the volume arrived a few days later and included no references to a Scott painting of Windsor Castle, I'm perplexed. But with further digging I find references to at least one other Scott painting of Windsor.

Can you tell us about these findings?

A version was sold through a London dealer in 1809, which could be the GAC work. Also, a newspaper review of an 1878 exhibition included a Scott work called A Painting of Windsor Castle in the time of Queen Anne and a work (which may be the same one) called Windsor Castle, Home of Queen Anne, is described in a 1949 catalogue of the collection at Anglesey Abbey in Cambridgeshire (which is now owned by the National Trust). I searched the National Trust Collections online and found the painting, now attributed to 'British (English) School'. Judging from the online image, it is quite different in tone and composition to the GAC painting, although there are similarities: for example, similar trees frame each side of the views.

And where do you go from here?

So, did Scott really paint Windsor Castle? Although the evidence is not clear, I have found no real reason to reject the attribution of the GAC work. While I would love to stay with the painting and continue my detective work, to try and find other similar works and learn more about the artist, for now this is where my research has to an end. The Scott painting is about to leave the building and I have several other projects waiting for my attention. I write up my notes for the minister, condense them for the GAC website and move on to the next pressing project, and the next enticing list of works.

As a postscript, research on this painting has in fact continued. I recognised a stencil on the back as a code added by Christie's auctioneers sometime in the paintings' past. This code can be used to identify where and when the painting was sold and might even lead to the name of a collector who once owned it. I'll let you know if I find more!