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Harold Wilson

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Harold Wilson

by Ruskin Spear
oil on canvas, exhibited 1974
20 1/8 in. x 15 in. (511 mm x 381 mm)
Purchased, 1975
Primary Collection
NPG 5047

Sitterback to top

Artistback to top

  • Ruskin Spear (1911-1990), Painter. Artist or producer of 12 portraits, Sitter in 10 portraits.

This portraitback to top

A gifted speaker and a skilful politician, he is portrayed in Spear's portrait with the air of hard-won informality that distinguished his public style. The sittings for this portrait took place in Downing Street. Wilson is shown here with his trademark pipe. Spear described Wilson as 'a great actor, using as pipe as an extension of himself'.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • 100 Portraits, p. 126
  • Smartify image discovery app
  • Gibson, Robin; Clerk, Honor, 20th Century Portraits in the National Portrait Gallery Collection, 1993, p. 29 Read entry

    Labour had been out of office for 13 years when Wilson led the Party to victory in the general election of 1964. In opposition he had remarked that he was 'running a Bolshevik Revolution with a Tsarist Shadow Cabinet' but Labour's fragile overall majority (four) unified opposing wings of the Party and it was largely due to Wilson that the 1966 election was comfortably won. A second term (1974-6) ended in his resignation at the surprisingly early age of 60. Like Churchill's cigar, Wilson's pipe is his personal trademark and in Spear's portrait it becomes a visual jeu d'esprit which the artist exploits to the full. The title of the painting is simply Man with a Pipe.

    Amiable paintings of London characters, cosy urban scenes and raffish cats characterize much of Spear's work together with a series of portraits which, in the tradition of Sickert, make liberal use of snapshots and newspaper photographs.

  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery: An Illustrated Guide, 2000, p. 212
  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery, 1997, p. 212 Read entry

    Ruskin Spear frequently did not paint from life but from press photographs or from photographs he took himself. He liked to produce paintings that conveyed information about someone's public persona. As it happened, his portrait of Harold Wilson was based on sittings at 10 Downing Street, but he might as well have done it from photographs, because it is a portrait of a man who did not allow much insight into his personality, but hid behind veiled eyes and a cloud of tobacco smoke. As Ruskin Spear wrote, 'The man is a great actor, using his pipe as an extension of himself, stabbing with its stem to emphasize points.' When the portrait was exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1974, it was called Man with a Pipe.

  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 667
  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 236 Read entry

    Depicted with his trademark pipe, and wreathed in tobacco smoke, the twice-elected British Prime Minister Harold Wilson is depicted in this portrait by Ruskin Spear (1911–90) as many of his detractors saw him: a populist politician with a down-to-earth style yet with an elusive, even evasive personality. Spear portrayed Wilson on several occasions. This portrait, the sittings for which took place in Downing Street, was exhibited in the year that Wilson returned to the premiership following his general election victory in October 1974. Spear saw him as ‘a great actor’, noting the way he used his pipe ‘as an extension of himself, stabbing with its stem to emphasize points.’ He added, ‘We talked, mainly about tobacco as I also smoke a pipe.’ Wilson was the only Labour leader to have led more than one government (a distinction later equalled by Tony Blair), but his second election was achieved by a narrow margin and the campaign was lack-lustre. Wilson now confronted 25 per cent inflation. In April 1976 he retired from office voluntarily, the first prime minister since Asquith to take that step.

Placesback to top

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Subjects & Themesback to top

Events of 1974back to top

Current affairs

28 people are killed and hundreds injured in the IRA pub bombings. Two pubs in Guilford popular with army personnel were attacked with gelignite bombs, followed by a pub in Woolwich and then two in Birmingham. 17 people, known as the Guilford Four, the Maguire Seven and the Birmingham Six, were arrested for the bombing but all were eventually found to have been wrongfully imprisoned.

Art and science

John Le Carré publishes his classic spy thriller, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The novel was later made into a BBC miniseries starring Alec Guinness.


A one party communist state is established in Ethiopia after a committee of military officers known as the Derg depose Halie Selassie from power.
Greek Cypriot officers depose President Archbishop Makarios III in a coup d'etat sponsored by the Greek Government. Taking advantage of the situation, Turkey sent troops to occupy half the island, proclaiming the Turkish Federal State of Cyprus the following year.

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