Read Ambassador Hitchens’ thoughts on the Government Art Collection’s revamp of British art on display at the British Embassy Tokyo.
From late 2014 to 2015, the British Government Art Collection has overseen a refresh of British artworks held at the Ambassador’s Residence. Tim Hitchens, British Ambassador to Japan, shares his personal impressions of life with the new artworks and reflects on the stories of contemporary Britain they are telling Britain’s audiences in Japan.
‘Cracks and wrinkles’
As a British diplomat, the Government Art Collection has been part of my life for over thirty years. The mysterious, elegant eighteenth century portraits I saw as a young man on the walls of my first Ambassador’s residence in the early eighties. The discovery of abstract art on ministerial walls in London when my professional training was all about being concrete. My first appointment – as Minister in Paris in the mid 2000s – when I was actually allowed GAC art in my own home, and read the back stories to the pieces I was growing to love. A real Paul Nash in the living room!
And now, as Ambassador in Tokyo, with some of the most interesting British art on the walls of a Residence built in the late 1920s, on the rubble of the Great Tokyo earthquake of 1923.
But how do you actually use the Government Art Collection in an Embassy overseas, where life is dominated by Country Business Plans and deliverables? Here are some examples.
The Residence is busy. We have over 10,000 people passing through each year – maybe only Paris can match that number. What we do is wildly various; conferences on nuclear decommissioning, or the launch of a new Stella McCartney collection, or celebrating the latest Thomas the Tank Engine book! We do big events with several hundreds, or intimate dinners for the First Sea Lord, or working breakfasts with Japanese CEOs. For each of them, we need them to believe they have entered a new world: Britain@Tokyo.
The high point of the 2015 social calendar in Tokyo was the first visit ever by Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge. Japan’s most important and most interesting 250 people came to the Residence to meet him. Given the numbers and planning involved, that involved a lot of waiting around for senior people. Cue the GAC. Several months before the event I agreed with the GAC team in London that a refresh and rehang was due, more than ten years since the last one. We discussed, brainstormed, and disputed together until a new hang was agreed; Senior Curator Adrian George came out to set the new collection in place.
At one point we had just attached to the wall a delicate piece by Jane Simpson, enclosed in glass, which though made of latex looked like white ceramic pots on a shelf – a reference back to the aristocratic tradition of “tableau vivant”. But a seismic shake produced cracks on the wall behind the piece. Adrian, displaying remarkable interpretative ingenuity, felt that leaving the cracks was entirely appropriate to the location, and indeed brought energy to the piece! So we left it; and we have a story we still tell today.
Once a year the spouses of many of Japan’s most senior figures come to a lunch. These are people who have all lived in the UK, want to be our ambassadors, and are looking for ways to explain contemporary Britain to their friends. This year, hearing of the new collection, they asked if I would give them a talk on the pieces. With Adrian’s help I pulled together an hour of slides, talking through the thinking and aesthetics behind them. They loved the eighteenth and nineteenth century pieces, with the stories of places and people integral to Britain’s history. But they laughed most and asked most questions about the twenty-first century pieces; “so that’s what the artist was getting at!”; “I’d never thought of it that way!”
The joy of the collection is that it prompts questions and debate. Many of the artists on my walls have lived in London and Japan, and their themes are often about the translation from one to the other. I have my doubts about Ryan Gander and his pin board art which hangs in the dining room – “A very Big Bean I thought to myself”. But it certainly produces challenge and discussion at dinner; and that in itself produces a good discussion about the value of challenge and dissent.
All that helps keep the reputation of the Embassy, and the reputation of the UK in a strong place. This year the UK rose to No 2 in the Global Innovation rankings. The Government Art Collection helps back that up, bringing the expected and the unexpected together in one stimulating place. It’s the job of diplomats overseas both to reinforce what is great about the UK, and surprise people out of what they think they know of us.
Those mysterious, elegant eighteenth century portraits in my first Ambassador’s residence in the early eighties are now hanging on my own wall. One of them, a favourite, is simply titled “English Gentleman Aged 53.” I celebrated my own 53rd birthday with guests in front of that painting earlier this year. The portrait had aged well; I was, I reflected, less sure about myself.
I hope that in thirty years one of my successors will enjoy the Government Art Collection in Tokyo as much as I do. And I hope that her (or his) house is still full of work that enlightens, surprises, and prompts reflection.