Our story

Some key dates from the history of the Collection

The memo from Viscount Esher to Sir Francis Mowatt, that aimed to 'save a good sum in decoration'

The memo from Viscount Esher to Sir Francis Mowatt, that aimed to ‘save a good sum in decoration’

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Before 1898
Works of art were acquired on an ad-hoc basis by government departments as bequests, purchases or gifts, as well as standard issue copies of royal portraits. Responsibility for the furnishings of government buildings was transferred from the Office of the Lord Chamberlain to the Office of Works in 1828, and works of art generally came to be included in this arrangement, although this varied between departments.

The Treasury approved in principal a proposal to purchase portraits for the rooms of the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary, and in 1899 the payment of £150 for 5 portraits which would ‘save us a good sum in decoration’ (image 1).

The Treasury authorized an annual amount of £300 to purchase paintings, or commission historical portraits. This was only for buildings in the UK – for its Embassies and Legations the Government depended on the financial resources and private collections of Ambassadors (image 2).

Loans from the Tate Gallery and National Gallery supplemented the Collection, while British Ambassadors abroad were still expected to furnish their own residences.

Recognition of the increasing need for pictures for diplomatic posts abroad, and the difficulties attendant on filling these by loans from national collections, led to the Treasury authorizing an annual sum of £250 to buy art for overseas diplomatic posts and the establishment of an ‘Overseas Picture Committee’ which included the Directors of the National, Tate and National Portrait Galleries. The Foreign Secretary advised against buying modern works as their exhibition might lead to ‘undesirable controversy’.
Works of art began to be acquired for their relevance to a particular country or city.

During the Second World War, all funding to the Collection lapsed. A small number of works were lost, damaged or destroyed as a result of the hostilities, mostly in embassies abroad (image 3).

A new Picture Committee was set up, represented by the directors of the national galleries. The Committee developed the GAC’s acquisition policy and agreed that some funds should be spent on modern works of art.
A number of works from official War Artists entered the Collection.
The Collection’s first curator – Richard P. Bedford – was appointed, as (part-time) Adviser to the Office of Works on the Picture Collection.

Richard Walker succeeded Richard P. Bedford as curator.

During the 1950s the Collection expanded significantly after an appeal for works of art from the new Minister of Works encouraged donations from private individuals, and a Special Subscription Fund raised over £17,000 for purchases.

Commissions and purchases of works documenting the Coronation, enabled by money raised from the Special Subscription Fund (image 4).

A significant number of modern prints entered the Collection, in response to initiatives to broaden the displays of good art in Government buildings, with an emphasis on living artists.
Number 10 Downing Street grew in importance as a prime location to display art.

Under Harold Wilson’s first Labour government, works by modern and contemporary artists were installed at Number 10 to reflect modern Britain (image 5).

Collection became part of the new Department of the Environment (DoE) (image 6).

Richard Walker’s Checklist of Portraits in the Department of the Environment Picture Collection published – the first catalogue on the Collection.
Appointment of Philip Wright, the first full-time curator; succeeded by Dr Wendy Baron two years later.

A forward strategy of commissioning contemporary artists to make site-specific works for embassies begins, with a work for the former Ambassador’s Residence in Bonn.
Collection transferred from DoE to Office of Arts & Libraries, (initially part of Department of Education and Science, but soon after becoming the responsibility of the Cabinet Office).

Margaret Thatcher’s preference for Number 10 was for portraits of historical figures and landscapes (image 7).

Name ‘Government Art Collection’ first used.

GAC involved in major commissions for the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster.


John Major reintroduced displays of modern British art when he succeeded Mrs Thatcher and this initiative continued when Labour came to power in 1997.

Collection became part of the new Department of National Heritage.

20th Century catalogue published.
Penny Johnson appointed as Director.
Collection came under the renamed Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

The Secret Art of Government, a BBC TV documentary about the GAC broadcast.
GAC participates in London Open House for the first time.

Continuation of policy to balance contemporary purchases with examples of historical works.

New Embassies in Moscow and Berlin open with Commissions by leading contemporary artists.

GAC website launched.

Major commissions for the new Home Office in Marsham Street (image 8).
Get rid of that Constable, I want a Hockney BBC radio documentary about the GAC broadcast.

All of the GAC’s oil paintings published in a single volume by the Public Catalogue Foundation.

Important collection of historic silver items transferred from the Privy Council Office.

Commissions by four artists installed at the Ministry of Justice.

2010 – present day

GAC achieves Accreditation status from the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.
New website launched.

‘Art Power, Diplomacy’ published – the first book about the history and role of the GAC.
In June ‘At Work’, the first exhibition of art from the GAC in a public gallery opens at the Whitechapel Gallery. The first of five displays, this is followed in September by Cornelia Parker’s selection, ‘Richard of York Gave Battle In Vain’ (image 9) and in December by Simon Schama’s selection ‘Travelling Light.’

Displays 4 and 5, ’12 from No 10′ and ‘Commissions Now and Then’ open in March and June at the Whitechapel respectively. In November ‘Revealed’, created from the Whitechapel displays, tours to Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery.

In March ‘Revealed’ opens at the Ulster Museum, Belfast.