By Rajeev Syal
Parliament is to receive an overhaul of its publicly displayed art work, with dozens of former and current female politicians and campaigners to be introduced to the walls of the Palace of Westminster.
A painting of Nancy Astor, the first female MP to take her seat in the Commons, and photographs of the MPs Yvette Cooper and Seema Kennedy, are among the works to be introduced following discussions among a committee of MPs.
It follows concern that the current collection of art – from statues that greet visitors in St Stephen’s Hall, to the paintings that line the corridors of the House of Commons and House of Lords – mainly shows white men, usually from the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries.
The Labour MP Alison McGovern, who chairs the Speaker’s advisory committee on works of art, said the committee was responding to public demand by commissioning and borrowing several new pieces of art to reflect the role of women in politics.
“When I tell people that I chair this committee, the single most common question I get asked is: why are there no women on the walls?
“For so many years, people could not even conceive of women being part of our political story. It is kind of obvious that we have to do something about it,” she said.
The committee plans to hang a painting of Astor in the Members’ Dining Room, the grandest restaurant in parliament, which has dozens of paintings, many of which depict men.
In the painting, entitled The Introduction of Lady Astor As the First Woman Member of Parliament in 1919, by Charles Sims, Astor is shown with her two sponsors and the former prime ministers David Lloyd George and Arthur Balfour. This painting had not yet been acquired, but negotiations were continuing, officials said.
A version of the painting was commissioned and hung in parliament in 1924 but was taken down after objections by members of the cabinet who said it was wrong to portray Astor because, at the time, she was a sitting member of parliament, McGovern said.
MPs also wish to acquire photographs of Cooper and Kennedy, whose images were captured last year as part of the “209 collection” that celebrated 100 years since women first gained the right to sit in parliament as MPs.
Other additions to the collection include a 2018 portrait of Lucy Baldwin (1869-1945), the maternity health activist and figurehead for the National Birthday Trust Fund, who campaigned for the extension of pain relief during childbirth, and a 2019 bronze bust of the slavery abolitionist Olaudah Equiano by the sculptor Christy Symington, which will go on display this year.
The committee, with a limited budget of £75,000 a year, also plans to commission paintings of sitting MPs and introduce more art to reflect a growing number of BAME politicians in parliament. The problem was that there were very few pieces of art that portrayed either female or BAME political pioneers, McGovern said.
“We are now in this mode of having to capture a story that was skewed by prejudices of the past,” she said.
The Labour MP for Rhondda, Chris Bryant, a member of the committee, confirmed that the parliamentary authorities were going to buy a number of pieces to complement a standing collection dominated by men.
“Of course we need to balance things up so that the art on the walls reflects the whole of the public. There are great women artists and important female figures from yesterday and today who should be represented in our collection,” he said.
Another committee member, the Tory MP Antoinette Sandbach, who is married to a sculptor, said: “There is an acceptance that the historical context of parliament does not reflect the current diversity of current MPs. It is not only pictures of women and those from minority backgrounds, it is also commissioning art to make sure that there is a representation of women artists.”