Copyright Palace of Westminster. Photography by Angus Muir
The Rt Hon the Baroness Williams of Crosby is the latest Parliamentarian to be added to the Parliamentary Art Collection. A reception to formally unveil the portrait, painted by Victoria Russell, took place on 18 July in the Attlee Suite in Portcullis House at House of Commons.
Hugo Swire MP, Chairman of the Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art, which commissioned the portrait, said:
“The Works of Art Committee are delighted to be able to add this portrait to the House of Commons collection. Shirley Williams was a Member of Parliament for 17 years, holding ministerial positions in the Wilson and Callaghan governments, and was the first SDP MP. The artist, Victoria Russell, has produced an insightful and thoughtful portrait and we are very pleased to have her work represented in the collection.”
Baroness Williams has spent her life immersed in politics and there can be no better demonstration of her continued active interest than her appointment as advisor on nuclear proliferation in Gordon Brown’s Government.
Baroness Williams said:
“I was very pleased and indeed surprised, to be asked to sit for this portrait and I am very honoured to be joining the very few women represented within Parliament’s Collection. I selected Victoria to paint my portrait as I liked the directness and honesty she gave to her other sitters. Victoria is an extremely honest artist and the portrait she has painted is a very good painting, and very candid.”
Baroness Williams’s father, the political scientist Sir George Catlin, was a Labour Party activist and her mother was the writer and pacifist Vera Brittain. After years of high office in Labour administrations, she resigned from the party to become one of the "Gang of Four" who founded the Social Democratic Party in 1981. This later merged with the Liberal Party to form the Liberal Democrats.
In 1988 she moved to the United States and took up the post of Public Service Professor of Elective Politics at the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. In 1993 she was raised to the peerage as Baroness Williams of Crosby, of Stevenage in the County of Hertfordshire. Subsequently she became leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords from 2001 to 2004.
The artist, Victoria Russell, trained at central St Martins and the Royal Academy and went on to win first prize at the BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery in 2000. Amongst her portrait work have been commissions of Baroness Usha Kumari Prasha, the Queen of Denmark HM Margrethe II, Fiona Shaw and Baroness Onora O’Neil.
She took five months to complete the portrait, which measures 94cm (width) by 110cm (height) in its frame.
Commenting on the process of painting Baroness Williams, Victoria said;
“Before I met Shirley, many people had told me what a wonderful person she is and how much integrity she has. It wasn't until I spent time with her, chatting, going for walks and, of course, sketching her, that I really saw that this was true. I caught sight of how she lives her politics, how her politics are not separate from who she is and her daily life.
It was a great privilege to work with Shirley and my intention throughout the process was to capture this integration of the political and the personal in the completed portrait.”
The portrait was unveiled by Baroness Williams daughter, Rebecca Williams, and will join the contemporary Parliamentary collection on the first floor of Portcullis House.