Trump or bust
Let's be clear, the bust of Churchill that President Trump ceremoniously placed on a Georgian occasional table beneath what looks like an Impressionist landscape in the Oval Office on his first day is not his. It’s ours, and we should have it back and not let “the greatest Englishman” appear to be giving Britain’s sanction to The Donald’s crazy antics.
Here’s what happened, and this is not alternative news. The bust is by Sir Jacob Epstein, commissioned by the War Artists’ Commission in 1945 and completed in 1947. Ten casts were made of it, and two were acquired by the Government Art Collection.
With 13,500 works of art the GAC is Britain’s biggest national art collection that you never see, unless you’ve been lucky enough to go on a tour of its discreet facility off Tottenham Court Road. The GAC was set up in 1898 to collect works by British artists that would go on display in government offices here and around the world as a kind of statement of our cultural and historical probity. It occasionally lends works of art for short periods for art exhibitions, and there are bits of unremarkable silver adorning the court rooms of one or two Commonwealth countries, but major works are never allowed to stray into the hands of foreign governments. Except for once.
The GAC acquired two of the casts of the Epstein piece, one in 1983 and one in 1986. The latter is in the British Embassy in Paris, and the former was assigned to our man in Washington in whose formal reception room it resided. Its current market value is about £120,000. Then in 2001 after Nine Eleven, in the first flush of Tony Blair’s infatuation with George W Bush, he gave it to the president as a token of our shared Blitz-like steadfastness against oppression. It wasn’t our finest hour. In 2009 Barrack Obama reportedly was offended by its presence and, preferring a bust of Martin Luther King, got rid of Churchill. Or so it seemed.
It wasn’t like that, of course. The thing was assigned to the White House on a unique loan agreement in response to a request from the White House, and the loan period was for the duration of the president’s period of office only. So that agreement expired on January 19th, 2009, and the bust was routinely returned to the embassy.
Enter the great Churchill biographer and British foreign secretary who appears to have generously pressed our bust on the new president at their first tryst. Actually, it is the subject of another loan request from the US government, duly documented, signed and stamped, and when Trump goes it will return across town to 3100 Massachusetts Avenue where it belongs.
But the thing is, they don’t need our bust. When Churchill died in 1965 a third cast of it was bought by the billionaire Democrat politician and former US ambassador to London Averell Harriman to give to the then Democrat president Lyndon Johnson and it has remained in the White House ever since, so they've actually had one longer than we have. It has spent most of its time obscurely on the second floor outside the Treaty Room, and after Trump’s election it was brought into the Oval Office – only to be replaced after the inauguration in some cockeyed diplomatic gesture by our version. The whereabouts of the Americans’ own Democrat Churchill is not clear.