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Artwashing really works – just ask Theresa May

10 September 2023

Introducing Rakewell, Apollo’s wandering eye on the art world. Look out for regular posts taking a rakish perspective on art and museum stories.

Rakewell needs no reminding of the power of a good portrait, but it seems that nearly everyone else did. Providing a surprise refresher course is a painting of former British prime minister Theresa May. The portrait by Saied Dai was commissioned by the Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art (let’s just say Parliament) and unveiled this week to a wildly enthusiastic response. Although the reputation of the MP for Maidenhead has risen during the chaotic tenures of her successors (at three and counting since July 2019), it seems fair to say that the UK is not full of Theresa May-stans who have been too shy to declare their devotion until now.

The Rt Hon Theresa May MP (2023), Saied Dai. Photo: Peter Stone; © UK Parliament WOA 7741

The vibe, for most observers, has been Weimar – and the work does seem to owe something to the Neue Sachlichkeit. Your roving correspondent might also argue for a touch of Tamara de Lempicka-meets-Florentine Mannerism in the draping of the green fabric. Some critics have detected a military air in May’s wearing of her coat around her shoulders – and a Napoleonic hint in the placing of her right hand. And is it going to far to describe the blue of her jacket as Prussian blue? Praise of the portrait has often been accompanied with twinges of regret about the policies of its subject – but Rakewell can only commend the power of art to elevate, with a good portrait still winning over even the most polished photograph.

Cosimo de Medici in Armour (c. 1545), Bronzino.

Cosimo de Medici in Armour (c. 1545), Bronzino. Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

In May’s case, a direct comparison can be made with Annie Leibovitz’s portraits for the April 2017 issue of Vogue. The feature opened with May sitting on a green sofa and wearing a royal blue dress and coat. That coat was also draped around her shoulders, but the photographs capture a politician who seems to have wandered into a hostile environment of her own choosing. Dai’s portrait, by contrast, seems to depict May as she would like to be seen: too late for her political career but not, it turns out, for a flattering epitaph.

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