Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Do portraits of politicians paint a picture of prudence?

New portrait: Diane Abbott

In the matter of distinguished MPs and their portraits, I am reminded of the billionaire who asks a Mother Superior if she will have sex with him for a fiver. "Certainly not," replies this naturally scandalised bride of Christ.

"OK, I'll give you £1,000," he comes back. "Don't be absurd." "£100,000?" "Leave me alone." "Look, if you agree to go to bed with me," says the man, "I'll write you a cheque for £5bn, and you can eradicate child poverty throughout the land."

"In that event," says the nun, "it would be my sacred duty to God to make the ultimate sacrifice for the good of the little ones." "Right, now that we've agreed the principle," he says, "let's haggle over the price."

So it is with the portraits of leading parliamentarians, as commissioned by that crucial democratic cornerstone, the Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art. In principle, who could object to the immortalisation of such splendid public servants? It warms the heart to imagine the tour parties of centuries hence gazing in wonderment upon the faces of Michael Howard, William Hague and Dennis Skinner.

Whether such visions would cause art lovers to faint at the sheer beauty, I cannot say. But we applaud the likes of the above, Diane Abbott and Iain Duncan Smith, for giving up their precious time to sit for portraitists.

Where things become trickier is over the cost. Without necessarily having been asked their permission, Johnny and Joanna Taxpayer have stumped up £250,000 for the various paintings, busts and sculptures, which seems rather steep.

Being the kind of moron who knows so little about art that he doesn't even know what he likes, I cannot judge the aesthetic merit of these meisterworks. That said, several of those reproduced in newspapers after the London Evening Standard's Freedom of Information request (weirdly, the committee was bashful about publicising its works) do look slightly odd. In his painting, Mr Tony Blair – and we'll leave the Dorian Gray attic references unwritten – seems to be wearing the kind of clumping wig given to NHS chemotherapy patients in the early 1980s. It may even be the one worn by John Hurt when he played Bob Champion in the biopic of the Grand National hero.

As for the dreadlocked Ms Abbott, her portrait hints at Lennox Lewis about a year after he retired from boxing, by when he had let himself go a bit. Why she appears to be topless is none of our beeswax, though perhaps she only wears clothes in the chamber and to spare Andrew Neil's modesty on The Daily Politics. Ms Abbott is a good egg who adds to the gaiety (as is Kenneth Clarke, pictured looking even more ruddy-cheeked than in the flesh), and, as the first black woman MP, one appreciates her cultural significance.

Whether Mr Duncan Smith's catastrophic tenure as Conservative leader qualified him for a £10,000 portrait – one in which his dunce cap is mysteriously excised – is a more finely balanced question. No-one is more frantically concerned with sparing the taxpayer needless expense than IDS and that equates to a fair number of bedroom taxes, or respite weekends away for the parents of disabled children.

Of course, he could argue that when you are merrily blowing tens of millions on useless computer software, another 10 grand will hardly break the bank.

The dilemma could not be plainer. On the one hand, fans of the Muthah of Parliaments will rejoice at an elite corps of its occupants being preserved on canvas.

On the other, invoicing the public purse for £250,000 hints at a certain tension between the stated imperative for spending austerity and the actualité.

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