Everyone loves a good party. Here, in the UK, we are preparing for perhaps the biggest knees-up of all—the parties being planned up and down the country, with bunting, union flags and cake stalls decking out many a street throughout the realm, in celebration of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee.
We are now immersed in seedy photographic images of “parties”—depicting perhaps some of the most controversial parties of our time—those held at No. 10 Downing Street, the residence and workplace of Prime Minster Boris Johnson, during the country’s strict Covid-19 lockdowns. For those who thought the public interest in what is known as “Partygate” would die down, following reams of media wordage over the last months, the pictures give the lie to this. As one MP reminds us: “A picture is worth 1,000 words”.
What hurts people about these images of senseless merry-making (No.10 staff have alluded to “Wine Time Fridays”, people sitting on laps, and bins overflowing with bottles) is how cruelly they contrast with the misery inflicted on the rest of the country as it stuck to the rules of no gatherings and strict social distancing (100 police fines to No. 10 staff, including one to the Prime Minister, have been issued). One of the most poignant images of that period was of the Queen sitting alone at the funeral of her husband Prince Phillip. It has become one of the defining images of her reign and a mark of her respect for the plight of her subjects.
The party images from No. 10—beginning with a trickle leaked to ITN News and leading to those accompanying the publication of Sue Gray’s report today—are pale reflections of the 17th-century pictures by the Dutch Genre artist Jan Steen, who specialised in portraits of boors and scenes of drunken carousing. Steen’s A Merry Party (around 1660, in Budapest), shows a figure toasting his comrades in much the same way as Johnson raises a glass.
Perhaps even more pertinent is Steen’s picture of The Dissolute Household (around 1660), which hangs only a short stroll away from No. 10 in London’s Apsley House (you can find it readily on the Art UK website). The picture provides an entertaining and salutary lesson to those who over-indulge—albeit in their own home or workplace. It shows the effects of intemperance; careless lovemaking, drunkenness, gambling, sleeping on the job, dishonesty, all are there. And if you look closely, you can spot the monkey, which symbolises “everything sub-human in man, of lust, greed, gluttony and shamelessness” as the label puts it.