This week, Banksy’s Devolved Parliament 2009 sold at Sotheby’s for £9.9M, against an estimate of £1.5 – 2M.
(c) Banksy 2009, photo Sotheby’s.
As Bendor Grosvenor pointed out on twitter, in Sotheby’s July Old Masters sale you could have bought a Rubens, a Botticelli, a Bellotto, and a Velazquez for the same amount. An incredible thought. But Devolved Parliament really is art. This is a proper painting, a massive painting – oil on canvas 98 1/2 x 168 1/2 inches – and it actually works. The drawing and scale of Banksy’s Chamber is faultless. The lighting is just stunning. He gets the feel of the woodwork and the low glow of the Chamber at night exactly right.
But the most gobsmacking thing about this painting, is how well it works as a group portrait. That’s a very difficult thing to paint, with half a dozen sitters, let alone Banksy’s hundred. The figures are all individuals, and each has a distinct character – even their backs are expressive – and they are all engaging with each other, so the picture comes alive as your eye moves round the figures on benches, though like them you’re drawn back to the figure of the Prime Minister standing in the pool of light, and the . This is real talent. Brilliant painting.
You get the feeling that Banksy has a lot of respect for apes. On both sides of the House, these chimps, and orang-utans are taking the business very seriously. Everyone is listening intently, solemnly and respectfully. This is a matter of the greatest weight, of the greatest moment. You could hear a pin drop. It would’ve been easy for Banksy to paint the Commons as a chimps’ tea party. Devolved Parliament is a different kind of satire (and it’s not a satire on Brexit, it was painted in the last days of the Labour Government). It’s timeless; more like a medieval fable. Banksy’s utopian future. Apes are so solemn, and dignified, and polite to each other. It’s the humans who go bananas. Look, he says. Remember Laugh now, but one day we’ll be in charge? It came true. But it’s ok. They’re doing a good job.
Laugh now, but one day we’ll be in charge c.2007 (c) Banksy, photo Peter Goodbody
There’s a brilliant line about some bit of history – something like ‘it was the maddest time, with the maddest people, in the maddest place.’ I think it’s about the Gordon Riots of 1780, but if someone knows the actual quotation and what it’s about, I’d love to hear. Anyone who thinks that the threat, even the implication of riot is a workable threat in these times ought to remember the Gordon Riots. In 1780 Lord George Gordon mobilised first the anti-Catholics and then everyone with any grievance at all – and at the height of war with America, France and Spain that was a lot of people – for six days of the worst riots in London’s history. On the last day, the army had to step in. Officially 285, perhaps as many as 700 people died, and Britain’s international reputation plumetted. That’s not how the Parliament of Apes would do it.