Some people have garden gnomes, but here at the British Embassy in Washington, we’ve gone one better. Last Thursday we inaugurated a new sculpture on the lawn of the Ambassador’s Residence: ‘Extend’ , a remarkable work lent to us by one of Britain’s most highly-regarded sculptors, Turner Prize winner Antony Gormley. The sculptor himself was there for the ceremony and for an interesting conversation afterwards arranged by the State Department’s Art in Embassies programme with Milena Kalinovska of the Hirshhorn Museum.
As you can see from the photo, ‘Extend’ is a thoroughly contemporary piece: an abstracted human form, seemingly constructed from dozens of individual cubes, with long extensions from its head, thigh and shoulder that reach out to connect the sculpture with its surroundings. It fits very well with the magnificent house in whose garden it now sits, even though that house was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens in the 1920s. In particular, the sharp angles of the sculpture and ochre colouring of the cast iron perfectly complement the Residence’s clean lines and red brick construction.
We used to have some difficulty persuading our guests to go to the bottom of the garden. Not any more.
That very British marriage of ancient and modern can be seen throughout the house. When we moved here in January, my wife, Susie – an art historian who used to work as a curator at the Sackler Gallery here in Washington – looked afresh at the way the Embassy’s art is displayed. Experts from the UK Government Art Collection came in and transformed the grand stairway into a traditional 18th Century British print hall, with pictures hung in geometrical patterns on the walls. Most of the prints date from the period 1750-1820, but two of them are very contemporary indeed: laser-cut portraits made in 2007 by the British artist Julian Opie, best known for his monumental animated LED sculptures and iconic album cover portraits of the Britpop band Blur.
Not far from the stairway print hall, another work blends tradition with modernity : Andy Warhol’s screen print portrait of Her Majesty the Queen that hangs over a fireplace in the ballroom, complete with diamond dust, not far from Damien Hirst’s “Pardaxin” which came with us from the British Embassy in Paris, and Peter Blaker’s wonderfully optimistic and colourful “Have a Nice day, Mr Hockney”, on loan from the Tate Gallery in London.
Our Ambassadorial residences – of which Washington is one of the most impressive – are there to help British diplomats, and the businesses and other organisations to whom we make them available, offer a warm welcome and showcase the best of British to audiences around the world. Sometimes we focus on politics and foreign policy. Sometimes we help charities raise money, as we did earlier this month for Ayenda, which supports orphanages in Afghanistan. Sometimes something completely different, like the Trafalgar Night dinner last week which celebrated the remarkable links between the Royal and US Navies. And sometimes we focus on boosting trade and investment, for the good of the UK and US economies, for example by holding events for iconic British brands like Aston Martin, Bonhams, Virgin Atlantic, and HSBC, all of whom we have welcomed in the past few weeks. Next up are James Bond and Downton Abbey…..
Plenty of good reasons, therefore, to ensure that the Washington Residence, and the works of art it displays, remain at the cutting edge of what the United Kingdom has to offer.