Art Works: Security

Department for Culture, Media and Sport written question – answered at on 5 April 2024.

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Photo of Lord Lexden Lord Lexden Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

To ask His Majesty's Government whether they have issued guidance to public institutions and universities concerning security arrangements for the protection of historic portraits of past statesmen.

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport)

The vandalism against the portrait of A.J. Balfour at Trinity College, Cambridge, last month is rightly being investigated as a criminal act by Cambridgeshire Police. The shoddy sense of history by those who perpetrated and promoted it is also a reminder of the importance of historic portraits in improving our awareness and understanding of the past.

The famous declaration made by Balfour as Foreign Secretary in November 1917 made clear that ‘nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country’. At the time Balfour issued it, the man who had painted his portrait three years earlier, Philip de László, was (despite having become a British citizen, with the former Prime Minister as one of his sponsors) interned, having been arrested on suspicion of treason on account of letters he had written to family members in Austria. As the historian Giles MacDonogh has noted, it appears ‘the fact that de László was born of Jewish parents had some bearing on the case’; his interrogation by Special Branch dwelt on his Jewish ancestry, and an unsympathetic biography included in the recommendation from MI5 to the Home Secretary that he be interned noted that de László was the ‘son of a Jew tailor’. In May 1919, his case was raised in a debate in Your Lordships’ House; the following month, it was brought before the Certificates of Naturalisation (Revocation) Committee, which took just fifteen minutes to throw it out and exonerate him.

It is thanks to portraits like this that such fascinating insights into our past can be gleaned.

I have spoken to the Vice-Master of Trinity College following the attack, and hope that this magnificent portrait can be swiftly repaired and shared with students and visitors to the college for many years to come.

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