March Artwork of the Month: Harold Wilson by Henry Mee

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01 March 2016

Artwork of the Month: March 2016 marks one hundred years since the birth of former Labour leader Harold Wilson (1916-95), who served twice as Prime Minister during one of the greatest periods of social and industrial change in the twentieth century.

Harold Wilson entered Parliament in 1945 as Labour MP for Ormskirk, West Lancashire. He was immediately appointed Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works in Clement Attlee’s government. Just two years later, Wilson became President of the Board of Trade, making him the youngest Cabinet minister in the 20th century.

Wilson went on to become Leader of the Labour Party in 1963, and led the party to victory the following year (albeit with a slim majority of just four seats). In the lead up to the general election, Wilson is said to have coined the well-known phrase: “a week is a long time in politics”.

During his first period in office (1964-1970), Wilson made a number of significant changes to modernise Britain. His government abolished capital punishment and liberalised laws on censorship, divorce, abortion and homosexuality. He also sought to end discrimination against women and ethnic minorities, and the Open University was established.

In his second term as Prime Minister (1974-76), Wilson oversaw a historic referendum which saw Britain vote to remain a member of the European Economic Community (EEC). His second term also saw further reforms in healthcare, education, housing, gender equality, pensions, provisions for disabled people and child poverty. However, the United Kingdom was experiencing severe economic problems, so his last years in power were marred by industrial and economic crises.

In March 1976, at the age of sixty, Wilson retired from the Prime Ministerial seat, claiming that he was physically and mentally exhausted. He continued to serve on the backbenches until he left the House of Commons in 1983 and was elevated to the House of Lords.

This oil painting by Henry Mee was commissioned by the Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art and is displayed alongside busts and paintings of former Prime Ministers and eminent politicians in Portcullis House. The painting forms part of Mee’s famous series of portraits entitled' British Eminencies', which also includes a portrait of HM Queen Elizabeth II.

Image: ‘Harold Wilson, Lord Wilson of Rievaulx’, oil painting by Henry Mee, 1991 (WOA 3572)

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