Canvassing politicians: What is the point of an election artist?


MANY were bemused by the announcement on May 1st that Cornelia Parker was to be the official artist of the 2017 general election. Not as a comment on Ms Parker’s credentials—she is widely considered to be one of Britain’s most exciting contemporary artists—but to discover that such a post exists. Artists regularly go after politicians of their own accord: to formally commission that skewering seems an odd quirk of British democracy. Instituted in 2001 by Tony Banks, then-chairman of the parliamentary Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art, the election artist is given £17,000 ($22,000) and travel expenses to observe and record the campaigns. The medium is left to the artist’s discretion, but in recent years the committee has asked that there be an element of public engagement.

Jonathan Yeo, the inaugural artist, created a triptych oil painting of the main party leaders where the size of their portrait correlated to their portion of the vote. In 2005, David Godbold produced Hogarthian satirical illustrations on scraps of election ephemera such as manifestos, letters and flyers. In 2010 Simon Roberts photographed the quiet lanes and doorstep conversations of day-to-day campaigning, soliciting more than 1,600 additional images from “citizen photographers” living and voting in far-flung places, which he posted on his website. Adam Dant, 2015’s pick, made brisk “lightning sketches” and uploaded them to a blog with some brief contextual detail. Ms Parker is using an Instagram account (@electionartist2017) to offer an eclectic commentary: so far she has posted pictures of road signs, homeless people and newspaper headlines. One image, captioned “The election contenders”, shows a group of waving garden gnomes. 

Two further stipulations come with the role. First is that the artist must remain politically impartial, capturing the “mood” of the election rather than dealing explicitly with any particular policy. The second is that they must produce a final work—one that can be put on display, or contain elements that can be displayed—which will eventually join the parliamentary art collection. Mr Yeo, Mr Godbold, Mr Roberts and Mr Dant all opted for figurative works (see below), but Ms Parker is unlikely to do the same. She is best known for her conceptual work with sculpture and installation: detonated sheds, cut-up shotguns and squashed instruments. Rather a perfect fit for the explosive modern moment.

“Proportional Representation” (2001), Jonathan Yeo. In 2001, this newspaper wrote that the general election “[promised] to be one of history’s dullest”; Labour walked away with 40.7% of the vote, retaining an overwhelming majority. Mr Yeo reflected this dominance in his triptych, with Tony Blair rewarded with a “television-sized” portrait (76.5cm x 134.5cm), William Hague receiving a more modest offering (76.5cm x 104.5cm) and Charles Kennedy the smallest painting of the group (76.5cm x 61cm).  Mr Hague noted that it was the first time that Mr Blair “has had me on his left and Charles on his right!” 

Untitled (2005), David Godbold. His oeuvre is described as similar to that of “a pupil who farts during the solemn graduation ceremony attended by well-dressed parents and visitors, he loves irreverence.” Mr Godbold was considered a brave pick for the role, and found himself clashing with the Speaker’s Advisory Committee over depictions of politicians in the nude and captions containing obscene language. The 18 works that comprised the final commission offered plenty of jibes at censorship, the candidates, campaign promises and the NHS.

“The Election Project” (2010), Simon Roberts. Mr Roberts chose 24 images—one for each day of the campaign—to reflect the geographical breadth of the trail and the variety of parties running for office. His focus was the relationship between the canvassing politicians and the voting public: David and Samantha Cameron are pictured waving in Witney; Gordon Brown talks to the press in Rochdale; Nigel Farage engages with individuals in Buckingham; Nick Clegg speaks to a crowd in a Tesco car park in Warrington. In the end, Mr Roberts increased his offering to 25 photographs: the final image was taken on the day of the coalition talks. 

“The Government Stable” (2015), Adam Dant. Mr Dant filled several notebooks with rapid sketches while following the electioneering. Many of the scribbles are incorporated into this densely detailed work—Mr Dant calls it an “encyclopaedic compendium” of his experience—which depicts artefacts of the general election enshrined as in a museum. Its title also brings to mind the repetitive rhetoric that has beset Britain since. 



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