Big year for the British Embassy here in Washington: A new ambassador, lots of parties for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics — and a new showcase of British art.
“Although the embassy is new for me, it’s not new for you,” said Susie Westmacott, wife of Ambassador Peter Westmacott. “It’s interesting for regular visitors to see something different.”
Now guests at the grand residence on Massachusetts Avenue will find a mix of old and new British artists: There’s a Barbara Hepworth painting in the living room (next to a window looking out at her sculpture in the garden), William Hogarth in the dining room, Peter Blake (on loan from the Tate) and one of Damien Hirst’s spotted paintings in the hallway, and two coronation paintings. There is one piece in the ballroom by an American artist: Andy Warhol’s portrait of Queen Elizabeth II.
But the biggest change is in the grand, two-story entrance: Huge portraits of King George III and Queen Charlotte are still hanging around, but the two-story hall is now covered in 118 prints — most from the late-18th century — to complement the Georgian-style architecture of the house.
Think it’s easy to switch around a few paintings? Not when they belong to Britain's Government Art Collection, which decides what art hangs where around the world. The Westmacotts had to get permission to move the embassy’s existing paintings and hang the new installation in the foyer. Sometimes the bureaucrats listen to ambassadorial preferences, sometimes they don’t.
To fill the huge entrance hall, Lady Westmacott and government officials came up with an “18th-century hang” — a mix of prints framed to match the black and gold double staircase and hung, in perfect symmetry, floor to ceiling. “It was kind of like putting together a puzzle, and the puzzle could have more than one solution.” She snuck in a couple modern portraits by Julian Opie (he did the album cover for Blur that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery) and a “Where’s Waldo?” homage to the mansion’s architect, Edwin Lutyens, whose picture is hidden in one corner.
Everyone’s happy with the results — except one member of the embassy staff. “Our Visits Officer is very upset because he says he already has enough trouble getting high-level visitors out of the house,” she told us. “And now they’re all going to linger on the stairs.”