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Cultural propaganda? The British Council collection: the British Council is celebrating its 75th anniversary with a series of exhibitions at the Whitechapel drawn from its vast art collection. As Simon Grant discovers, its holdings are especially strong in works by celebrated British artists at the outset of their careers.


In the middle of north-west London's suburban rumble is a large unassuming building that contains one of Britain's great cultural treasures. It is the site of the store for the British Council's collection of British art which, since the first acquisition in 1938, now consists of over 8,500 works--paintings, watercolours, drawings, prints, video, photography and sculpture ranging from the 19th century to the present day.

Could you list your favourites? Or even, for that matter, choose one? It wouldn't be surprising if not. Since the British Council started taking exhibitions abroad in 1935, thousands of these works have been travelling around the globe as part of the Council's remit to 'promote British cultural and intercultural understanding' in the 110 countries and territories with which they are involved.

Yet when I saw a selection of works hanging in pull-out steel racks in the west London store, I was amazed by how many are instantly recognisable or familiar. The artist Michael Craig-Martin also visited recently and was, apparently, a bit 'shell-shocked' by the number of works to look at. He was there to select pieces for the inaugural exhibition of the British Council Collection at the newly renovated Whitechapel Gallery. He decided to choose a group of works that reflect the prescient buying skills of the council, including Bridget Riley's glorious op-art icon Cataract 3 (1967), bought from her Venice Biennale show in 1968, Freud's Girl with Roses (Fig. 4) and an early Chris Ofili painting, Painting with Shit on It, which has just come back from being shown in Nigeria (Fig. 5).



Craig-Martin's task was both enviable and difficult. His decision to focus on works that the British Council bought early in an artist's career is a fruitful one, as not only does it give a more accurate flavour of the shifting tastes, as well as the changing landscape, of British art practice over the decades, it also reveals a consistency of intelligent buying over the years. For example, in 1946 the council bought Paul Nash's Landscape of the Megaliths (Fig. 2) for 132 [pounds sterling] 6s, and in the same year Graham Sutherland's Thorn Tree (Fig. 7), a more expensive buy at 315 [pounds sterling] (Sutherland's career was at its peak then but would decline in later years).

The list of works reads like a history of British art (with the inevitable duds along the way too)--ranging from Walter Sickert, Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, Howard Hodgkin, Gilbert and George, Richard Long, Peter Doig (an early painting from 1991; Fig. 6), Patrick Caulfield, to Mark Wallinger, Anya Gallaccio, Rachel Whiteread, Douglas Gordon and Roger Hiorns. (The work of the last went down very well in South America recently.)

As well as painting, sculpture and prints, the collection also has a very good, and surprisingly little-known, collection of 20th-century photography --started in 1982 when Brett Rogers (now director of the Photographers' Gallery, London) was brought in with the remit to acquire work by British photographers. That too is a list of solid names: Tony Ray-Jones, Keith Arnatt, Raymond Moore, Bill Brandt and Paul Seawright (Fig. 3). Some of these were recently on show in 'No Such Thing as Society: Photography in Britain 1968-1987' at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw, and is currently touring the UK.

So how did the collection begin, and perhaps more importantly, why did the British Council start exhibiting their collection abroad? Was it cultural imperialism? Or propaganda? Or was it a form of 'soft power', a way to oil the diplomatic cogs? It was a question on the mind of Lord Reith in 1940 when the wartime role of the British Council was under scrutiny: 'Who can say where cultural activity ends and propaganda begins?'

In the 1920s and early 1930s the Foreign Office recognised a need for Britain to promote its culture abroad and to proclaim the values of parliamentary democracy amid the rising tide of fascism. In its early stages, foreign representatives of the council operated through British embassies and high commissions, and priority was placed on politically sensitive countries--firstly Egypt and then such countries as Romania and Poland. In 1940, John Rothenstein, who was on the committee of the British Council (and also director of the Tate Gallery) emphasised the 'far reaching importance' of the 'cultural propaganda' of a large-scale exhibition in the us and Canada. (In the early years, the phrase 'cultural propaganda' appears regularly in committee meeting minutes--nowadays the council prefers the phrase 'cultural relations'.) The British Council still has to contend with political sensitivities--both its St Petersburg and Ekaterinburg in Russia as well as its Tehran office in Iran have closed.



The collection started with a small number of works on paper, primarily as it was deemed easier to transport a small flat piece of art that could fit into the hold of an airplane or train. At first, as the council's holdings were small, these often included works borrowed from artists, and some were for sale. Works were then used to create exhibitions for international touring programmes. The first example was an exhibition of prints and drawings from the council's first purchase, begun in 1938 and added to over subsequent years to what would be known as the Wakefield Collection, a large group of works put together with a donation of 3,000 [pounds sterling] from the industrialist Lord Wakefield. This included prints by artists from the etching revival, such as James McBey and D.Y. Cameron, as well as works by Charles Conder, C.R.W. Nevinson, Cecil Collins and Sickert. After a showing at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1947, it went on a three-year tour of 13 venues across Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand, before ending in Fiji. It was a huge hit. The director of the Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide reported that not only did they have to reprint the catalogue, the exhibition was so popular they had to open the gallery on Sundays--an unprecedented thing to do in those days.

The number of countries in which the British Council agreed to co-organise exhibitions rapidly increased. From the beginning the response was encouraging. One Baron Franckenstein--sic--regarded the show in his native Vienna of British Graphic Art in 1937 as 'a great success ... well received by my fellow-countrymen'. By 1938, there were already plans for exhibitions in the United States, Stockholm, Venice and Paris.

Often these exhibitions were broad in appeal, and in the early days tended to focus on historic pieces, as there were not yet enough works in the collection to give an adequate reflection of Britain's contemporary art. However, from the outset the focus was to promote contemporary art, although there was some disagreement about its definition. In the first committee meeting, in November 1935, it was suggested that this meant 'any artist living from 1920 onwards'. While such figures as Rothenstein and Kenneth Clark (who had a long spell on the committee) understood and enjoyed modern and contemporary art, they were not always in the majority. During one meeting to discuss a possible contemporary art exhibition to Egypt in 1943, the Duke of Wellington doubted whether the Egyptians 'had the slightest appreciation of the visual arts'.



So how are acquisitions made for the collection? The British Council's policy is now 'largely determined' by its exhibition programme, which is put together in response to requests from overseas galleries and museums. These requests vary greatly--different countries have different sensibilities. So for example, 'Aftershock: Contemporary British Art 1990-2006' was chosen by a team of art specialists from China, the first exhibition of its kind specially selected for a Chinese audience. It included eight works from the council's collection including one of Gillian Wearing's photograph of hand-held signs Everything is Connected in Life the Point is to Know it and Understand it (1992-30), Mona Hatoum's Over my DeadBody, and Douglas Gordon's 10ms-2 (1994)--the last is the first video installation to have entered the collection.

Many of the council's works are in demand from museums and galleries across the world as loans to monographic or group shows. In the Whitechapel exhibition each work is accompanied by its 'passport', which reveals where and when it has been exhibited while in the collection. For example, Nash's Landscape of the Megaliths was already on tour in 1939, when it was shown at the British Pavilion of the World Fair in New York before touring to six other venues in the States and Canada (a diplomatically important tour). Between 1987 and 1993 Freud's Girl with Roses travelled between the us, Paris, London, Germany, Edinburgh, Tochigi (Japan), Tokyo, Sydney and Perth, London and back to the United States. David Hockney's 1962 painting Man in a Museum (Fig. 11) was included in the artist's first retrospective exhibition, which started its European tour at the Whitechapel Gallery in April 1970, before travelling around Europe. After a trip to Mexico in 1984, it then took part in the show Hockney Paints the Stage at the Hayward Gallery, London, in 1983. In 1988 it was included in another retrospective that toured to the Los Angeles County Museum and Art Gallery, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and then to the Tate Gallery the following year. Since then it has toured Germany and Denmark in 2001 and been shown in Hockney's home town of Bradford in 2006. It is no wonder that the British don't know the collection better.


It has often been the case that the council has organised exhibitions using loans from other sources as well as works from its collections, to highlight a particular artist or to show recent trends in art. Some of these shows were pioneering. For example, in 1992 'New Voices' was an exhibition of paintings made by young artists between 1989 and 1992. Intended to give an overview of the work of a new generation of British painters and sculptors, and co-selected by Andrea Rose (currently the council's dynamic director of visual arts), it featured 17 recent acquisitions and opened at La Borschette in Brussels, to coincide with the British Presidency of the European Council of Ministers. Many of these works are now regarded as some of the best of their age. Among them was one of Gary Hume's paintings, Abandoned, from his now iconic Door series based on hospital doors. There was Keith Coventry's Nunhead Estate (Fig. 9) an abstract oil made to look like a Suprematist painting but shaped by the outline of a London inner-city housing estate. Not all were small-scale pieces. The exhibition included Rachel Whiteread's False Door (Fig. 8), an early piece of a negative space cast in plaster. (The work had already been in demand, having been exhibited at the Martin Gropius-Bau, Berlin, in 1991.) Its inclusion in 'New Voices' came two years before Whiteread's large-scale piece House--the negative cast of an entire house, which was subsequently demolished--the work that made her wider reputation. The 'New Voices' tour travelled to another 20 venues over the next five years.

The council was again ahead of the game in comparison with UK institutions when it organised a group show called 'General Release: Young British Artists' as part of the British Pavilion's exhibition programme at the Venice Biennale. It included what we now think of as the key names of the YBA generation--Jake & Dinos Chapman, Douglas Gordon, Gary Hume, Sam Taylor-Wood, Tacita Dean and Fiona Banner. The exhibition was two years before 'Sensation' at the Royal Academy--an event that was to alter radically the perception and reception of contemporary art in Britain.

Such exhibitions (there are countless) show that the British Council has had good relationships with artists over the years, which is largely thanks to its curatorially rigorous teams. One early example was Lilian Somerville, who joined the British Council at the beginning of World War II and became director of the Fine Arts Department in 1949. According to Patrick Heron, writing in 1970, the year of Somerville's retirement, she was responsible for its 'enormously successful intervention in promoting British art overseas' and 'certain reputations enjoyed by British artists today might well have suffered' but for her.


Today, this close relationship is nowhere better seen than at the Venice Biennale. The council's involvement with the Biennale is perhaps the most visible and recognisable part of what the council's visual arts section does. (Britain has been exhibiting at the Venice Biennale since 1895, but the exhibitions in the pavilion have been the responsibility of the council since 1938.) Exhibiting at the Biennale inevitably leads to an artist's career growing internationally and, as a result, the council will receive increasing requests to show that artist. Such was the case with Henry Moore. After his 1948 Biennale exhibition, requests to show his work became frequent: his sculpture Girl with Clasped Hands is one of the most asked-for items from the collection (Fig. 10).



Given the current financial climate, and the increasingly competitive global art market, what is the British Council Collection's future? This year, its acquisition budget is a paltry 100,000 [pounds sterling]--enough to buy a couple of butterflies in a Damien Hirst painting or the corner of a Bacon. There are also some structural issues to be overcome. Complaints persist about a growing culture of bureaucracy in the council that is seriously curtailing the creative energy of its staff. Shamefully, the council has abolished its art advisory committee, which allowed it to draw on the collective wisdom and experience of a wide range of gallery directors, artists, critics and curators. Whatever happens, the Council's buying skills will have to be sharper than ever if the collection is to be developed in the future as well as it has been in the past.

'British Council Collection--Great Early Buys' is at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, from 5 April to 14 June. For more information, telephone +44 (0) 20 7522 7888 or go to
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Author:Grant, Simon
Date:Apr 1, 2009
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