‘You’re joking,” said Brenda from Bristol when Theresa May called an early General Election in 2017. “Not another one.” And, indeed, another after that. I remember the 2019 election (which resulted in an 80-seat majority for the Conservatives) with particular resentment because it fell on my birthday. Off I went in the freezing drizzle on the morning of December 12 to exercise my democratic right to vote.
“A real slog,” is how Nicky Hirst, official artist of the 2019 General Election, remembers the campaign, the first winter election in nearly a hundred years. “It was cold and wet, an unusual time of year.” There were, however, compensations: in every city Hirst visited there was a Christmas market, a carousel and a Ferris wheel.
Those lights in the darkness were to inspire her response to the election – a sculpture titled There Was A Time, which will be unveiled at Portcullis House, where more than 200 MPs have their offices, tomorrow after a long, pandemic delay. Unveiled is perhaps the wrong word. It would be difficult to throw a blanket over this pleasingly puzzling, multi-coloured mobile suspended in the seven-storey atrium.
Hirst is the sixth official General Election artist since the scheme was launched in 2001. The first was portraitist Jonathan Yeo in 2001 (a second term for Tony Blair), the second, draughtsman and painter David Godbold in 2005 (Blair again), the third, photographer Simon Roberts in 2010 (David Cameron and Nick Clegg in the Rose Garden). Then came cartoonist Adam Dant in 2015 (a Cameron majority) and former Turner-Prize nominee Cornelia Parker in 2017 (Theresa May’s electoral hiccup, resulting in a Conservative minority government and a “confidence-and-supply” deal with the DUP). Haven’t the last few years been fun?
Yeo produced a triptych portrait of Blair, William Hague and Charles Kennedy with each figure taking up as much space as their share of the vote.
Godbold, a series of 18 religious drawings with ironic titles on the backs of electoral leaflets. Roberts submitted 12 large-format photographs and 1,696 documentary snaps, and Parker posted more than a thousand campaign photos on Instagram, edited together with news clips and sound bites in an animation called Election Abstract.
For my money, Dant did it best with a massive, marvellous drawing in the Hogarth tradition, called The Government Stable.
According to the Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art, which appoints the General Election artist in what seems a rather secret-squirrel, behind-the-scenes process, the job is to “record each UK General Election, for future generations to be informed and inspired by”, taking care to “provide a balanced view of the election”.
After accepting the gig, in November 2019, Hirst set off around the country. To begin with, she went to manifesto launches and party events, but she quickly realised that you learn little by being with people who are all of the same mind. “So I went to the more contested areas of the country where people were really trying to work out how they were going to vote.
“What I noticed was that there was a lot of … ah … People were very, very conflicted …”
While travelling to these marginal areas, she also became “obsessed” with the party colours. Badges, flags, rosettes, posters in windows, and this is reflected in the final work, which features 64 abstract figures in Perspex, hung from a great Catherine Wheel frame.
The colours do not just represent the party mix, says Hirst; they also represent the diversity of people and opinions around the country, while the spinning structure evokes both the literal Ferris wheels and carousels she came across, and the metaphorical “cycles and rotations” of elections. She cites the great American mobile-maker Alexander Calder as a “huge” point of reference.
It is cloudy on the day I visit Portcullis House and the atrium is almost empty, but Hirst tells me that on a sunny day There Was A Time’s transparent elements will cast a “stained-glass” effect on the floor, while the revolving doors will create an air current “so each figure can rotate and each wheel can spin”.
I worry that Portcullis House, sealed for security, won’t give the mobile the breeze that it needs. And, while There Was A Time certainly cheers up the grey and hanger-like space, I’m not sure the atrium is the best place for it. Hopefully, when this neatly conceived piece goes on tour around the country, the committee will find it some good old draughty town halls.