Friday, March 23, 2012
Book Review: A Guide to the Works of Art of the National Liberal Club
A Guide to the Works of Art of the National Liberal Club, London (second edition)
National Liberal Club, 2011
Designed by the great Victorian architect Alfred Waterhouse and opened in 1887, the National Liberal Club is a work of art in itself. Gothic towers and pinnacles pierce the Whitehall sky: its wine cellar is formed from the remains of an attempt to build a railway under the Thames to Waterloo.
Between them are to be found portraits, busts and engravings that tell the story of the Club, of the Liberal Party and of British political radicalism in general. This elegant illustrated booklet by Michael Meadowcroft, the Club’s honorary librarian and a former MP for Leeds West, makes a fitting celebration of this collection. It is an expanded edition of one written by Veronica Herrington in 1997, and its indexes of artists and sitters make it easy to use. My only criticism is that the illustrations are not captioned.
Meadowcroft tells us that the art collection dates from the Club’s earliest days, when it was regularly offered busts and portraits (“more often than not of Mr Gladstone”). The result is a collection that is home to the Grand Old Man and to almost every prominent Liberal since. They range from wing-collared grandees of the party’s heyday to Paddy Ashdown, whose portrait is the only one to depict its subject in informal dress. (Among other recent Liberal leaders, Jo Grimond wears an academic gown over a suit and Sir David Steel appears to have chosen to be painted in the uniform of a Peruvian admiral.)
But the collection is not confined to Liberal leaders or even to Liberal members. There are portraits of radicals, such as William Cobbett and George Holyoake, who were never part of mainstream Liberalism but with whom the Club and its members were clearly in sympathy.
Perhaps high portraiture is less to modern taste, and in many ways the best painting in the book is a less formal study of Charles Bradlaugh, the atheist MP for Northampton, by Walter Sickert. Paul Temple’s recent painting of Sir Cyril Smith gets beyond its subject’s bulk to find his character and there is a stunning portrait of the young Violet Bonham-Carter by Sir William Orpen, though this turns out to be a modern copy.
Meadowcroft does not record what became of Orpen’s original, but a significant number of works have been lost since the collection’s apogeé in 1940. One reason is the 1941 air raid that destroyed the Club’s famous staircase, though fortunately the finest paintings had been sent for safekeeping to the home of the Cornish Liberal Isaac Foot. (A portrait of Asquith was less fortunate in 1910: suffragettes scrawled ‘Votes for Women’ across it in purple ink.)
Through all these vicissitudes the National Liberal Club remained more than an art gallery: it functioned as an important hub for Liberalism when the party was at its lowest ebb. In 1948 Sir John Simon, an eminent National Liberal and former Chancellor of the Exchequer, was asked to resign after speaking for the Conservative candidate in a by-election.
A further reminder of those days comes in the form of an illuminated address presented by the Club to Harry Willcock. Willcock, a Liberal parliamentary candidate, had refused to produce his identity card when stopped by the police in 1950. His actions led to abolition of identity cards two years later.
This address may be the least important item in the collection from an artistic point of view, but it is priceless from a political one.