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The GAC promotes British art through displays in UK Government buildings worldwide. It is the most widely distributed collection of British art, with displays in 129 countries. The GAC makes an important contribution to cultural diplomacy by showcasing the work of artists in Britain from the 16th to the 21st centuries. New acquisitions continually develop the diversity of representation within the Collection to reflect contemporary British society.

Art Unlocked is an online talk series by Art UK in collaboration with Bloomberg Philanthropies. This Curation is based on a talk by Chantal Condron, Curator of Public Engagement at the Government Art Collection, on 8th December 2021. You can find a recording at:

6 artworks
  • Brighton, Regency Square, is one of five commissioned paintings of the spa towns of Bath, Brighton and Cheltenham that Piper made in 1949 for the new British Embassy in Rio de Janeiro. Like a stage-set, it reflects Brighton’s Regency architecture, and in 1949, complemented the embassy’s Neoclassical architecture. When the commission was unveiled for the first time in Brazil, a critic remarked on ‘Mr Piper’s hot colour – brilliant yellow facades and undulating balconies’. Following the Second World War, these paintings were the first contemporary works commissioned by the Government Art Collection. In 1975, they were moved to the new capital, Brasilia. Since then, they have been shown separately in different locations.

    Brighton, Regency Square 1949
    John Piper (1903–1992)
    Oil on canvas
    H 197.5 x W 123 cm
    Government Art Collection
    Brighton, Regency Square
    © the Piper Estate / DACS 2023. Photo credit: Government Art Collection

  • Diminutive and pearlescent, Carlile’s Portrait is the earliest work by a woman in the Government Art Collection. Carlile, one of the first professional female portraitists in England, likely painted it in the 1650s.

    The sitter is not identified, however recent research suggests that she resembles Elizabeth Murray, Countess of Dysart (1626–1698), who Carlile painted several times. Based at Ham House in Richmond, Murray was a loyal supporter of Charles I, and an astute political operator who in 1653, joined the Sealed Knot, a secret organisation established to restore him to the throne. After the Restoration, her loyalty was recognised with a pension of £800 a year for life. Murray remained a keen collector and patron of Carlile.

    Portrait of a Lady Wearing an Oyster Satin Dress 1650s
    Joan Carlile (1600–1679)
    Oil on canvas
    H 30.8 x W 25.5 cm
    Government Art Collection
    Portrait of a Lady Wearing an Oyster Satin Dress
    Photo credit: Government Art Collection

  • Visiting Egypt in winter 1979, Riley was struck by the set of colours she observed in the artefacts at the Cairo Museum and the tomb paintings at Luxor. She began painting with what she called an ‘Egyptian Palette’ of colours which allowed her to ‘recreate the colours from memory. Reflection is one of the first paintings I made with it.’

    Riley’s practice has often been associated with ‘Op Art’. However, her exploration of perceptual principles to create optical effects is rooted closely to her belief that visual forms offer a medium through which to experience the intangible experience of emotion or mood. Playing with repetition, contrast, reversal and counterpoint creates visual ‘disturbances’ that offer sensory connections.

    Reflection 1982
    Bridget Riley (b.1931)
    Oil on linen
    H 161 x W 135.5 cm
    Government Art Collection
    © courtesy the artist and Karsten Schubert, London. Photo credit: Government Art Collection

  • Popova’s chair honours the physicist Lise Meitner. Hahn, Strassmann and Meitner discovered the nuclear fission of uranium, a major development in nuclear energy. Invited to take part in the 1942 Manhattan Project, she declared ‘I will have nothing to do with the bomb!’. When Hahn and Strassman received the 1944 Nobel Prize for Chemistry, Meitner was snubbed.

    In 2017 at Girton College, Popova made a tapestry with designs echoing chemical elements, including plutonium, whose synthesis was a key outcome of the Manhattan Project. She used a version of the tapestry to upholster a chair from the College, dedicating it to Meitner who she visualised ‘sitting in the chair and taking a moment to reflect on her complex historical legacy'.

    Lise Meitner 2018
    Yelena Popova (b.1978)
    Re-upholstered chair
    H 86.7 x W 76 cm
    Government Art Collection
    Lise Meitner
    © the artist. Photo credit: Government Art Collection

  • This work by Crewe, one of five fired clay slabs from Slabs by Radclyffe Hall (2020) which they made for two ‘sister’ exhibitions in Birmingham and Hull. It references Radclyffe Hall, the English lesbian writer, whose 1928 novel, The Well of Loneliness, has inspired generations of LGBTQIA+ readers.

    Crewe’s video, “Morton” – “Beedles” – “An abyss” follows the re-enactment of the 19th century summer tradition of ‘well dressing’. Crewe describes, ‘...together, and apart, these slabs test the possibility of living with a wound. In all of them a chemical change had taken place, and had been an ordeal. Beautiful things were burnt up, and much was lost – but the objects have taken forms in which they might survive, changed.’

    'A Slab' – 'The Wild Heart of Ireland' – Panel 2 from Slabs by Radcliffe Hall 2020
    Jamie Crewe (b.1987)
    Ground coffee, elderflowers, statice flowers, leaves, acrylic wool & fired clay
    Government Art Collection

  • A European plug lying redundantly beside a British power socket, Sami’s painting has an air of wry humour, yet disguises his personal experience of pain and trauma. He describes this painting as one of ‘displacement, not fitting, and detachment from the perspective of a post-refugee artist.’

    Born in Baghdad, Sami grew up in the shadow of seven wars in Iraq. He later studied at the Institute of Fine Art, Baghdad and worked at the Ministry of Culture, before eventually seeking asylum in Sweden in 2007. Reflecting the lived experience of post-traumatic stress disorder, the act of painting provides both a means for attempting to process suffering he has witnessed and what he vividly describes as ‘a burden of remembering.’

    Displacement 2017
    Mohammed Sami (b.1984)
    Acrylic on linen
    H 52 x W 80.5 cm
    Government Art Collection
    © the artist. Photo credit: Government Art Collection