To mark Women’s History Month, March’s artwork is Antony Williams’s portrait of the Rt Hon Margaret Beckett MP, the first woman leader of the Labour Party and Britain’s first female Foreign Secretary.
The portrait was commissioned by the Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art in 2011 in recognition of Beckett’s long and distinguished parliamentary career. It went on to win the prestigious Ondaatje Prize at the 121st Annual Exhibition of Royal Society of Portrait Painters in 2012.
Like most of Antony Williams’s work it is painted in egg tempera, an ancient medium in which egg instead of linseed oil is used as the binding medium. Unlike oil painting, this painstaking and exacting method does not easily allow for alteration.
Williams combines the strengths of the tempera medium with direct and intense observation, resulting in a heightened sense of realism. In Beckett’s portrait, this is most readily apparent in the detailed surface texture of her skin.
The portrait is part of the contemporary portraiture collection that hangs in Portcullis House and can be viewed by members of the public attending committee meetings or taking specialised tours.
Margaret Beckett’s parliamentary career
The then Margaret Jackson first won a seat in the second General Election of 1974. Promotion was rapid in the Labour government and she was soon appointed a junior minister. However, she lost her seat in 1979 and did not return until 1983 for Derby South, winning by a very narrow majority.
In 1989 Beckett joined the Shadow Cabinet, becoming Shadow Leader of the House under John Smith. After his sudden death in 1994, she was temporary leader of the Labour Party, stepping down when Tony Blair was elected.
Beckett was appointed the first woman President of the Board of Trade, and Secretary of State for the Department of Trade and Industry, in 1997, moving to Leader of the House a year later. She became Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in 2001.
In 2006 Beckett became the first female Foreign Secretary. This made her only the second woman after Margaret Thatcher to hold one of four Great Offices of State.
When Gordon Brown became Prime Minister in 2007, Beckett returned to the backbenches, though she briefly served as Minister of State for Housing in 2008-9. She remains an influential backbencher, leading the No to the Alternative Vote campaign in 2010 and producing the 2016 ‘Beckett Report’ into the reasons Labour lost the previous year’s General Election.
In the 2013 Honours List Beckett was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
Image: Detail of 'Rt Hon Margaret Beckett MP' by Antony Williams, tempera on board, 2011 (WOA 7203)