HC Deb 05 June 1805 vol 5 cc170-2

The Master of the Rolls presented a petition from the trustees of the British Museum, praying the aid of parliament to enable them to purchase the collection of antient sculpture left by the late Mr. Charles Townley, of Park-street, Westminster. This collection was not to be rivalled in this country. It was one which vied with, perhaps, any private collection of similar works to be met with in any part of Europe. Such an acquisition to our national museum was much wanted. Foreigners had long since remarked, that our country was the only great state of Europe where a public collection of the famous productions of the antients, in the art of sculpture, is not to be found. In the present situation of Europe, and of this country, it was greatly to be wished that we might have within ourselves subjects in that branch of the arts for the study of our artists; and under these circumstances the British Museum has solicited the aid of parliament. On the other hand, the persons who have the direction of the affairs of the late Mr, Townley, have signified their readiness to dispose of so much of the collection as the trustees of the Museum wish, on terms deemed very reasonable. Having said this, there remained for him just to observe, that all he meant at present was to move, "that the petition be referred to a committee, and that they do consider the matter thereof, and report the same, as it shall appear to them, to the house."—Then the said petition was brought up, and read; setting forth, "that, by the munificence of parliament, the Sloanian and Harleian collections of books, manuscripts, records, coins, medals, gems, and other rare and valuable articles of science and literature, have been heretofore purchased at the public expence, and placed as an addition to the Cottonian library, under the care and management of the trustees of the British Museum; and that the collection of Etruscan, Grecian, and Roman antiquities, belonging to the late sir William Hamilton, was afterwards purchased by parliament in like manner, and vested in the same trustees, to be placed in the same general repository; and that many large and valuable benefactions of books, coins, medals, and specimens of natural history, have since been received, from time to time, so as nearly to occupy the whole of the building assigned for those purposes; Oat when his majesty was graciously pleased to direct that the Egyptian antiquities, obtained in the last war by the valour of his majesty's arms, should be placed in the British Museum, a liberal aid was granted by parliament towards the erection of a suitable addition to the present building, as well for the purpose of preserving these securely and conveniently, as also for the reception of other important specimens of the fine arts, already in the possession of the trustees, and to which it was hoped that material additions might be made from time to time, which building has been undertaken accordingly, and will be nearly completed in the course of the present year; and that the, late Charles Townley, esq. who was a trustee of the British museum, did, in his life-time, by successful exertions, and at a large expence, during a long course of years, form a most valuable collection of ancient sculptured marbles, which, for their perfect condition, and exquisite taste, far exceed any private collection in this country, and are not surpassed (as it is believed) by any other of equal extent in Europe; and that the family of the late Charles Townley, esq. to whom this collection was bequeathed, in consequence of a representation to them, that the preserving and exhibiting it to the public view in the metropolis would be highly advantageous to the cultivation of the fine arts, and at the same time honourable to the memory of their deceased relation. have expressed their consent to surf ender this collection to tile public, if parliament should he disposed to purchase time Fame at the sum of 20,000l. being (as they state) far less than its value, and if the like privilege were conferred upon their family as was granted, in the like cases, to the families of sir Hans Sloane and the earl of Oxford, by vesting in the heirs of the late Charles Townley, esq. the power of nominating two trustees of the British Museum in perpetual succession; and that the petitioners conceive it to be an object of great national, importance for the improvement of the fine arts, that a collection of antique sculpture, of such acknowledged and unrivalled excellence, should be acquired and preserved for public inspection and use; and they have felt it the more incumbent upon them to submit these circumstances to the consideration of parliament, as they believe it to be universally allowed, that a collection in this branch of the fine arts, to which artists can have tree access, is much wanted in this country, and as the additional buildings, already provided for by the liberality of parliament, have been planned in a manner the best adapted for receiving such a collection, and exhibiting it to the greatest advantage."

Sir William Young bore distinguished testimony to the excellence of the collection, and the great merits of Mr. Townley, not as a collector only, in which respect his merits were undoubted, but likewise as a judge of the arts, and of the greatest correctness of taste. The collection was worth four times 20,000l. He wished it to be recommended to the committee, to grant sufficient to purchase the whole collection of which the articles of sculpture, though so eminent, formed but a part. The collection was superior to any private collection in this country, and even superior to any private one, excepting four or five in Rome itself; the capital of the liberal arts, If, therefore, the representatives of Mr.Townley would be willing to part with it, he wished the committee to extend the purchase to the whole collection.

The Master of the Rolls observed, that such a purchase was no doubt desirable, but the trustees of the British Museum did not wish to overstrain the liberality of parliament.— A committee of the house was now appointed to consider of the petition, and report to the house.