Gordon Brown approves first public display of art from Chequers

Ten paintings including two newly-attributed Van Dycks will be lent from the prime ministerial country home to Compton Verney near Stratford-upon-Avon next month

LONDON. Gordon Brown has given permission for the first-ever loan of a group of paintings from Chequers, the prime ministerial weekend retreat. The Art Newspaper can reveal that portraits from the Buckinghamshire house are to be exhibited next month at Compton Verney, near Stratford-upon-Avon.

Chequers was given to the nation in 1917 for the use of the prime minister of the day by Lord Lee of Fareham (who went on to found the Courtauld Institute, see below). Since then, few art historians have passed through its doors and only a small minority of its 186 paintings have ever been publicly exhibited. It is an extremely private residence; only the prime minister, his staff and personal guests are admitted.

When Gordon Brown took over as prime minister last June, there were reports that he would be the first premier to effectively give up using Chequers. In fact, Mr Brown regularly stays there at weekends while the Commons is sitting. His agreement for the Chequers loan to Compton Verney marks a significant development in allowing access to the art collection.

The most important pictures going to Compton Verney are a pair of newly-attributed portraits by Van Dyck, of Charles I and his wife Henrietta Maria (p1). Other loans include portraits of Mary I, James I, Charles I, the five children of Charles I, and Oliver Cromwell. A portrait of Lady Mary Grey, ascribed to Hans Eworth, has special links with Chequers, since she was confined there

by Elizabeth I.

Perhaps the most intriguing work is a portrait attributed

to Flemish 17th-century artist Jacob Huysmans of Elizabeth Claypole, a daughter of Cromwell, who is depicted

with a globe, scientific instruments and a sunflower. Also on loan will be a pearl and ruby locket ring once owned by Elizabeth I, with miniature portraits of herself and her mother Anne Boleyn.

Altogether ten works are being sent to “Portraits from Chequers: Kings, Queens and Revolutionaries”. This starts on 7 June at Compton Verney, the Warwickshire art gallery opened in 2004 by the Peter Moores Foundation.

In return, Compton Verney is lending several paintings to Chequers, to fill gaps left on the walls. These include two views of London by Canaletto, bought by Sir Peter Moores in 2006.

The collection

The pictures at Chequers include works by Backhuysen, van Goyen, Kneller, Lawrence, Lely, Raeburn, van Ruysdael, Teniers II, Watts and Zoffany. There is an unfinished self-portrait by Reynolds. Many of the early works are in the Great Hall, which has just been redecorated, reinstating the original dense, triple hang of Lord Lee.

Churchill, as the only prime ministerial-artist, donated one of his own pictures, a landscape with Lake Geneva. He also left his mark in another way, on a painting by Rubens and Snyders, The Lion and the Mouse, which depicts an Aesop fable. This hung high up in the Great Hall, where the mouse was barely visible. Late one night Churchill called for his paints, and with the aid of a stepladder, he highlighted the mouse. In 1973 the picture was restored, and Churchill’s overpaint was removed; it has now been moved to the ante room to the Great Parlour, and there the original mouse is visible.

Running the house

Although Lord Lee left an endowment, the upkeep of Chequers is expensive, and its running costs are supported by grant-in-aid from the Treasury, which now runs at around £850,000 a year. The house and contents are owned by a private trust, chaired by the Leader of the House of Lords (currently Baroness Ashton).

Chequers Trust secretary Rodney Melville says that the Compton Verney loan is one way of giving public access to the works of art, because it is not feasible to open the house to visitors. Although individual works have occasionally been lent to exhibitions, the Compton Verney display will mark a significant step forward. n

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