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Britain ponders how to deal with ‘offensive stereotypes’ depicted in its foreign office murals

A report calls for an overhaul of the ‘elitist’ foreign office, beginning with its palatial old colonial headquarters

“If you can reach up to touch it, it’s just gold paint. If you can’t, it’s gold leaf,” an official said as we swept through the Locarno Room, a vast gold and red reception chamber in the British foreign office. I was joining a group on a backstage tour of the grand building on King Charles Street, off Whitehall.

The lavish premises has for about 160 years been the headquarters of the government department that is now officially called the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). It was built during the Victorian era to celebrate the riches of Britain’s empire and to impress visitors with its might.

These days, however, the building, with all its colonial accoutrements, is increasingly viewed by some in Britain as a source of embarrassment to a nation that still grapples with the negative legacy of its conquering past. In particular, there is unease over one of its most prominent paintings, which portrays the entire continent of Africa as a little black boy offering up his fruits to the British Empire.

The building previously also housed the India Office, the old government department that used to run that country in colonial times, and which replaced the East India Company, which infamously plundered the region. There are still elephants carved into the walls above King Charles Street, while the spices of India that were sold to fill the empire’s coffers are celebrated in the plasterwork inside.


Westminster remains in Easter recess this week and during such periods the frenetic day-to-day political agenda tends to give way to more reflective discussions. On Monday, a group of former UK diplomats and senior civil servants, headed by former cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill, published a report criticising the foreign office as “elitist and rooted in the past”.

The report’s authors argued the FCDO and its headquarters must be revamped to fit in with the modern era. They said a building with “fewer colonial era pictures on the walls” would be a good start to send a more appropriate signal to the world of what modern Britain is about.

While there is still some pride in the palatial nature of the foreign office building with its beautiful friezes, the sense of embarrassment at the colonial excesses of the structure was also openly acknowledged during the tour that I joined.

The most imposing part of the building is the famous old grand staircase that sweeps up from street level to the floor that houses the foreign secretary’s office. Whenever a foreign ambassador is called in for a UK government dressing down, it is up these stairs they still must trudge.

The staircase is flanked by five enormous murals by the artist Sigismund Goetze, who painted them during the early part of the 20th century; he died in 1939. A written description of the paintings on the staircase landing now acknowledges them as “deeply old fashioned” and filled with “offensive stereotypes”.

The first mural depicts a beautiful Anglo-Saxon figure driving away people that Goetze referred to the “cruder races” of nearby lands. Irish ambassadors visiting the foreign office over the years must cock their eyebrows at that one. Another mural shows Britain as a reliable peacemaker amid other war-scarred European nations – Serbia and Belgium, for example, are depicted as little naked children comforted by Britannia.

It was also Goetze who depicted Africa as the little fruit-bearing black boy. His inclusion, according to the foreign office’s written description, was to remind people, in Goetze’s words, of “our obligations and possibilities in the Dark Continent”.

The description acknowledges that the murals offend “the other nations of the British Isles”, a term that is itself seen by many Irish people as a problematic description for these islands.

Meanwhile, up in the Locarno Room, a huge harp representing Ireland remains painted into the ceiling as part of the royal standard of the late Queen Elizabeth.

The description also acknowledges the “ironic ring” to the murals’ portrayal of Britain as a traditional peacemaker, “in light of centuries of successful warfare and imperial expansion”.

“Today’s FCDO is a dramatically different institution from the one for which Goetze painted his murals. Our ambition is to be an open, outward-facing country, whose relationships with countries around the world are based on co-operation, equity and mutual respect,” it says.

Meanwhile, British prime minister Rishi Sunak, whose parents immigrated from India, on Monday rejected through his spokesman the charge in the Sedwill report this week that the foreign office is “rooted in the past”. Britain still may have a way to go before it resolves some of the internal arguments over its colonial history.