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Martin Pawley: a contribution to art history

Item: photograph by Snowdon. Location: No 9 Northumberland Place, London. Subject: former Trade and Industry Secretary Peter Mandelson in a corner. Background (left to right): plain wall to corner, painted white, with no skirting or cornice. Small secretly hung unframed Jacobean portrait; full-height venetian blind, slats giving a glimpse of balcony balustrading. Second plain wall from corner also painted white with no skirting or cornice, but with a square recess (prob. location of removed fireplace). Middle distance: a reclining figure in stone-washed denim jacket and dark blue jeans; also black rubber-soled boots, one or two sheets of typewritten paper and a red cardboard folder. Expression: inscrutable. Foreground: a tumble of red dispatch boxes on a field of cut-pile baize wall-to-wall carpet.

Thousands of people must have stared at this photograph over Christmas. Originally taken for Vogue a year ago, it has now been reproduced everywhere. A portrait so rich in information that for anyone aware of the dire circumstances laying in wait for the sitter, it could as easily serve as a 'spot the error' puzzle on a comic strip page, or as a classic art historical texte, like Ingres' Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne, painted in 1806.

In both images, the clues lie in the clothes, while the crucial object is the throne. Ingres has Napoleon so swathed in Imperial robes that they largely obscure his throne, with only part of one fluted gilt pilaster and its arching back, glittering like the trail of a comet, clearly seen. Mandelson cannot match Napoleon in such matters. His cruising rig is too titchy to camouflage much. And even if it is not exactly a flat-pack item from Ikea, nor is his throne a glittering hand-made object of mystery. Instead of the sensible right-angle desk he needs, he appears on a Charles Eames-designed 'Upholstered Lounge Chair and Ottoman', a combination first catalogued by Herman Miller in 1955. The subtleties of this piece of kit are confined to the clever - but hardly Imperial - interchangeability of the seat and Ottoman cushions, and the use of 'old-fashioned' down- filled leather upholstery.

But for Mandelson the Eames rig had an even more serious drawback. Anyone attempting anything more spatially ambitious than watching television or reading a newspaper from the Eames chair experiences immediate difficulties. Processing boxes of paperwork while reclining on an upholstered lounger is a feat as near impossible as writing a novel during an involuntary stop on the Northern Line. Just reaching the dispatch box at your feet without dropping all the paper on your lap cannot be done. In simple terms, you cannot work in an 'Upholstered Lounge Chair and Ottoman'. You can only lounge in it.

One wonders at the role of the photographer in all this. No doubt Mandelson turned up for the photo session in his Armani suite and tie, only to be told by Snowdon to go away and change into something that he really wore at home. This he did, but nothing would persuade him to give up his files of paper and his red boxes. Just like Napoleon and his robes, really.

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