HC Deb 28 March 1825 vol 12 cc1257-70

The House having resolved itself into a committee of supply, Mr. Herries moved, "That 40,000l. be granted to defray the expenses of Works and Repairs of Public Buildings, for the year 1825."

Mr. Hume

wished to ask one question respecting the expenses of the King's-bench and the Fleet prisons. An act of parliament, passed many years ago, required the expenses of ail repairs done to these prisons to be paid and provided for out of the fees accruing to certain officers appointed for the management and government of the same. Those fees, however, had latterly been taken entirely by the individuals nominated to such offices. Now, he wished to know whether any arrangement had been entered into between the government and those individuals, in consequence of which the public were likely to be reimbursed any part of the expenses to which they were annually subjected on account of these prisons?

Mr. Herries

apprehended that the hon gentleman alluded to the act passed in 1724. It was very true, that that act did provide that the marshal for the time being should, out of his fees, provide for the repairs of the King's-bench prison, then to be built under the very same statute. In 1780, the prison was destroyed; and it had become a question, whether the act of George 2nd could be applied to any other than the prison which had so existed up to the year 1780. It was considered, that it could not; and that construction, he believed, had been acted on ever since. Whether the arrangement provided under the act of George 2nd was a proper one to be again acted upon, might, undoubtedly, be a proper subject of consideration.

Sir M. W. Ridley

was of opinion, that for the principal officers of the government, it would be highly proper, as well as convenient for the public service, to provide official dwellings attached to their respective offices, at the expense of the public. He begged to ask, whether it was intended to continue along the present line, and over the vacant space which one end of Downing-steet at that time presented, that extraordinary range of buildings which had been commenced at the Treasury, and which was so odd an elevation, that he hardly knew how to describe it. If it resembled any thing, with its one tier of building so strangely heaped upon the top of the other, it resembled a double stand on a race-course. Indeed, it reminded him strongly of the stand on the race-course at Doncaster.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

had no hesitation in saying, that the buildings which were to be erected in continuation of the present structures, would be in strict uniformity and harmony, and upon a well-considered plan. He was aware that the public attention was at present directed to public buildings, more than in former times. It was not easy for an architect, of all other persons, to escape criticism; because his work was exposed to the public eye during its progress, and commentaries were often put upon detached and imperfect parts of a structure, which would not apply to it when in its finished state. This was a disadvantage which the architect had to en- counter. Since the commencement of the building alluded to, it was thought that, in consequence of the defects and the nuisances which rendered the public offices in the vicinity so very unsightly at present, it would be desirable to make an alteration in the Home-office, and Council-office. A plan was at present under consideration, for uniting, under one facade, the Council-office, the office of the Board of Trade, and the Home-office. It was not determined on as yet; but he was able to state, that the buildings to be erected would be uniform, and in perfect harmony with each other. At the rear of the right flank of Downing-street, there was a space which his hon. friend said, would admit of the erection of residences for the accommodation of some of the officers of state. Now, the windows of the Home-office, the Council-office, and the office of the Board of Trade, looked into this space, and it was obvious that they must not crowd it too much. Besides, the extent of the space itself, would not allow them to build much. However, the space could certainly, with great advantage, be laid out for the erection of Exchequer offices, as it would be extremely advantageous to have these offices near the Treasury. He did not think that the space to which he had been alluding could be made use of, for the purpose of erecting suitable residences for the public officers. In fact, the depth of the space did not exceed that of a good room, and a little space for a passage Upon the general principle of residences being provided at the public expense for public officers, he thought such a provision extremely desirable. It might happen that an individual was called to fill a high public function, who might not be in circumstances to enable him to receive that company, which it was his duty to receive, in a manner becoming his situation. Hitherto, it had not been the custom for the leading public functionaries to have official residences, with the exception of the first lord of the Treasury, the chancellor of the Exchequer, and the first lord of the Admiralty. The house which he himself at present occupied belonged to the first lord of the Treasury; and he occupied it entirely through the courtesy of his noble friend. The secretary of the Treasury was in the occupation of the official residence of the chancellor of the Exchequer. The first lord of the Admiralty was obliged, from the nature of his duties, to be resident at his office. Those who were at all acquainted with the extensive intercourse which the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs was compelled to maintain with persons of distinction, would be at once alive to the necessity of his being in a situation to afford a suitable reception to such persons. It was necessary to the due dignity of the government. He considered the hint which had been thrown out by his hon. friend deserving of serious consideration. However, care should be taken not to push the principle too far. No doubt the provision would be an addition to the income of ministers. He hoped, however, that if such a provision was intended, parliament would not act niggardly, and would consider that it was not private convenience, but public dignity, that they were consulting.

Mr. Lockhart

decidedly objected to any propositions of the kind. If splendid houses were to be built for the great officers of the government, there must follow, as matter of course, additional incomes, and sumptuous furniture. The general effect of such a system might he to render the officers themselves less accessible than they at present were; and to increase the public burthens. And this he should the more lament, inasmuch as his majesty's present ministers had certainly shown more feeling for the people, than any he had ever known. Let them, first of all, relieve the public burthens, and then they might fairly "come down to parliament and suggest improvements, distinguished by as much magnificence as they chose to impose into them.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer,

remarked, that from the manner in which the hon. gentleman had just spoken of the suggestions of his hon. friend, a stranger might suppose the hon. gentleman to be talking of the intended erection of some magnificent palace, filled with costly furniture. Now, as for himself, he lived in an official house, but the furniture happened to be his own: such as it was, he was perfectly satisfied with it; though he must say, that if he should be put into another erected at the public cost, he should not be less accessible than at present. The hon. member for Oxford very seldom had occasion to honour him with a visit of a public nature; but though that hon. member did not, he could assure the House, that most of the other members had occasion to do so in the course of the session.

Mr. Littleton

did not think it necessary to provide all the ministers with houses built at the public expense; but there were some, for whom such an expense was absolutely necessary. He would instance the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. No one could doubt that it was necessary, both on account of the dignity of the office which that right hon. gentleman held, and for the convenience of the foreign ministers, with whom he was constantly transacting business, to provide him a house at the public expense. With respect to the other ministers, whom he believed to be greatly underpaid, perhaps it would be better that they should have an increase of salary than that houses should be provided for them.

Mr. W. Smith

animadverted on the extreme facility with which gentlemen had lately indulged in reflections upon the architects employed on the public buildings. Almost every member who had spoken on these subjects, forgetting the old maxim, "de gustibus non est disputandum," seemed to believe that he had discovered some infallible rule of excellence, by the test of which all new edifices might be tried; and, if their proportions and aspects did not come up to this test, hon. gentlemen really loaded the parties with the severest censures, not to say the most opprobrious epithets, alike inconsistent with ordinary candour, and offensive to good manners. They spoke as if they themselves were intimately acquainted with all the rules received in the science of architecture; and as if every thing was to be conceded to their opinions, and nothing to the technical skill, the knowledge, or the judgment of the architect whose works they reprobated.

Mr. James Martin

requested to be informed, what was the nature of the defect that had displayed itself in the structure of the Custom-house, and by whom the expenses of repairing and remedying it were to be defrayed?

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, it was intended, that they should come out of the funds of that department of the revenue. It was impossible for him to say what would be the amount of the expenses of repairing that place. It was true, that it had been built at a great expense to the public, under the direction of an architect, who was not at the time under the same control, as the other architects employed in public works at present were; namely, that of the Board of Works. He trusted, however, that no architect would be again employed in the same manner, or remain under so little control, as the architect of the Customhouse had been. In fact, he was the architect to the Customs; and, in consequence of holding that situation, the task of erecting the Custom-house, had been intrusted to him. He had employed a builder under a contract. In that contract the specifications were all drawn out, and when the building was finished, the architect certified, that the work had been done according to the specifications. It turned out, however, that part of the building known as the Long Room, had given way; and he feared it was too true, that a most scandalous fraud had been committed upon the public. It was to have been built upon piles, and the Long Room especially was to have stood, according to the specification, on an arch, the pillars of which were to have been supported by nine regular piles of considerable strength. Now instead of this having been done, it stood only on four piles and a half, which were not placed regularly; and intead of these piles being round pieces of solid timber, like the masts of ships, they turned out to be merely trees, with the branches chopped off. That was undoubtedly a fraud; and every pains had been taken to obtain repayment from, the builder for the loss that had been suffered. He was generally believed to be a person of large property, and means had been adopted to render that property available to answer the expense, should he ultimately be found to be liable. He did not know that the parties concerned in this building had done any thing to bring themselves within the operation of the law; but that point was at present under the consideration of the law officers of the Crown; and, if it should be found that they had rendered themselves liable to the operation of the Combination law; they would be proceeded against for a conspiracy. Whether there could be sufficient proofs of a combination between the parties, he did not know; but, undoubtedly, he could say this, that means had been taken to examine fully into the matter, in order to afford the fullest satisfaction to the public.

Mr. Alderman Woody

having the pleasure of knowing Mr. Peto, thought that charges of this kind, coming from so high a quarter, ought not to be hazarded, until they could be brought forward in some tangible shape. Seeing that the right hon. gentleman spoke of offences so serious in their character, the accusation ought to be distinct, and the grounds of it ought to be distinctly stated. First of all, he had heard that Mr. Laing the architect had not pursued the plan which he ought to have gone upon; and then, again, he was told that the gentleman who contracted with this architect, had not performed his work according to the stipulated specifications between them. Many reports had been, and many more would now be circulated, to the prejudice of Mr. Peto's character. This was wrong. If he was to be tried, he ought at least to have a fair trial. He had hitherto conducted himself with the greatest propriety, and he ought not now to be attacked in this manner upon mere supposition.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, he should not have stated what he had done, had not the question been put to him. He did not charge either of the parties with having acted improperly, he had merely said, that if it should appear that they had acted collusively, they would be proceeded against. He had not the slightest wish to institute proceedings against them; but if proceedings became necessary, they certainly would be instituted.

Mr. Alderman Wood

observed, that the sooner these injurious reports were set at rest the better. The individual to whom allusion had been made had at present works in hand, the execution of which would amount to upwards of 300,000l. On one occasion he had been obliged to give his vote against that individual, in consequence of the rumours that had been set afloat.

Mr. Maberly

said, that if ministers were underpaid, their salaries ought not to be made up by building them magnificent houses; for that would only be attended with an increase of expense in their style of living. The only true way to remove the evil, if it existed, was to increase their salaries so as to afford them a proper remuneration for their important labours.

Mr. Bernal

observed, that one of the individuals who had been occupied in building for the public, alleged that from 20,000l. to 30,000l. were due to him. This was a subject that called for inquiry. He conceived it would be very proper in future, to have a regular superintendant of public works.

Mr. Baring

said, he was much in favour of building houses for the principal officers of state, not for the convenience of the individuals, but for the benefit of the public.

Sir M. W. Ridley

said, he wished to see his majesty's ministers provided with houses, in every respect comfortable and convenient; but he had no desire that splendid mansions should be erected for them at a great expense. He was sure, if new houses were erected for them, the public business would be considerably expedited.

Mr. Hume

objected to the way in which buildings, the property of the public, were at present disposed of. In some instances, individuals, whose salaries were not more than 120l. a year, were placed in houses of the value of 2,500l. or 3,000l. He really thought that they had already laid out quite sufficient on public buildings. One million had been voted for building churches, 300,000l. for repairing Windsor Castle, with a long list of at ceteras. Surely these grants were sufficient. He did not object to the particular charge now under consideration; but, seeing such items introduced from year to year, he thought it required a great deal of consideration, before they proceeded further. No building should be carried on, by means of the public money, unless it was absolutely demanded for the public service.

Mr. T. Wilson

was anxious, when public works were undertaken, that they should be prosecuted on the most efficient, and, at the same time, the most economical plan. He would not spoil a work for the sake of a trifling saving. There was such a thing as spending a pound in the endeavour to save a shilling. There ought, in his opinion, to be an enlargement of the chief public offices. Formerly, the same business was not transacted in them as there was at present. He looked upon money laid out in rendering those offices more convenient, as most beneficially expended. It was, in fact, a piece of public economy.

On the resolution, "That 40,000l. be granted to defray the expense of Buildings at the British Museum, for the year 1825,"

Mr. R. Colborne

rose and spoke in favour of having the National Gallery of Pictures, the foundation of which had been recently laid, placed in a separate building, and in a more central situation than that which was now contemplated. The Angerstein collection, which contained many valuable specimens of art, ought, he conceived, to be placed in a more central situation, where they might be accessible to those who understood their merits, and were attached to the fine arts. He conceived that the British Museum was placed in a situation better adapted for the exhibition of works of science and of curiosity, than for the study of works of art. He wished to see government lending every assistance to the progress of art in this country; and was, therefore, desirous that the collection of marshal Soult should be purchased.

Sir C. Long

admitted, that there were many good pictures in the collection of marshal Soult; but there were also some of an indifferent character. With respect to the Angerstein collection, he could say of it, what could scarcely be said of any other collection, that it did not contain a work which was unworthy of a national gallery. As to the erection of a gallery in this part of the town, he had no objection to such a project: but this difficulty arose, that the pictures were, by act of parliament, placed under the trustees of the British Museum. He knew no hands to whom such a deposit could be more properly confided; and he could not see how they could erect a building in another part of the town for a national gallery, without separating the duties that would be connected with that establishment, from those which were attached to the British Museum.

Mr. Secretary Peel

observed, that the superintendence of the national gallery, wherever it might be situated, ought to be left to the trustees of the British Museum; for certainly there was no public body so fit to undertake the duty. For this reason, sir George Beaumont had made the donation of his collection to them- At the same time, he must say, that if the national gallery were banished to the neighbourhood of St. Giles's and Russell-square it would much lessen the value of the collection. It ought to be established where, to use an expression of Dr. Johnson, "the great tide of human existence flowed;" and he knew of no more fit situation than the neighbourhood of Pall-mall or Charing-cross. It was even desirable that the paintings should not be in the same place with the other interesting objects in the Museum. It was not when exhausted by viewing sculptures, and other works of antiquity and taste, that one should go into the gallery of paintings—[hear, hear.] It would be better to go on another day. He was not only friendly to the purchase of pictures, but would go a step further, and say, that when they were purchased, the public ought not, and he was sure would not, object to a proper place for their exhibition.

Mr. Hobhouse

said, that when he visited the British Museum, it was by mere chance he discovered that there were any pictures within its walls. He certainly wished that the national gallery of paintings should be separated from the British Museum. He did not like the idea of the great works of Raphael and Guido being placed in the same edifice with collections of animals and fossils. Such a mixture would be like uniting the Jardin des Plantes with the Musée. He was hostile to having so many valuable works of nature and of art accumulated under the same roof, because they were, in case of fire or any other accident, liable, at one moment, to the same catastrophe. He had no objection to allowing the supervision of the pictures to remain with the trustees of the British Museum. With respect to the collection of marshal Soult (a collection, by the way, which he had plundered in Spain), it undoubtedly contained some very fine specimens of art; but, on the whole, it was a question, whether it was worth purchasing.

Mr. Hume

hoped, if a new gallery was to be erected, that the plan would be fairly laid before the House. The neighbourhood of Charing-cross appeared to him to be the best adapted for the purpose.

Mr. Croker

said, that sir George Beaumont had made his bequest after the question had been mooted as to the situation of the gallery. He had intrusted his pictures to the trustees of the British Museum, as a corporate body acting on behalf of the public, and for the public benefit. The Dulwich collection was at least as fine as that of sir George Beaumont; and was quite as distant as Russell-square; though he did not profess to know exactly where Russell square was [a laugh]! Sir F. Bourgeois had given his pictures to Dulwich College, because he knew not where else to deposit them. The first use of the arts was, perhaps, the enjoyment of the few; but, the great object ought to be the improvement and civilization of the many. It was the business, then, of legis- lators and patrons of art to afford, not merely enjoyment, but a useful lesson: to place that lesson where, as had justly been said, the great tide of human existence flowed, and not in Russell-square, where the collection would only be visited by a few cognoscenti, virtuosi, and picture-dealers.

Sir C. Long

observed, that many persons were of opinion, that the national statues and pictures ought to be placed in the same gallery. The returns upon the table showed, that, in the last year, upwards of 100,000 persons had visited the British Museum.

Mr. Croker

said, he had been credibly informed, that many thousands had been attracted thither by the two white bears, imported by captain Parry.

Mr. Maberly

saw no reason why the trustees of the Museum should not be transferred, with all the buildings, to a more convenient situation. Large sums had been already very unsatisfactorily expended upon the building in Bloomsbury.

Mr. Peel

said, he had no objection to the building of a national gallery in the neighbourhood of Pall-mall, provided it were placed under the superintendence of the trustees of the British Museum, who had served the public so long and so ably.

Mr. Bernal

suggested, that the situation of the King's mews appeared the fittest for the purpose. Report stated, that Bow-street office, a house for the chief magistrate, and a house for the Rector of St. Martin's were to occupy that place. It had also been reported, that the royal academicians were to be turned out of Somerset house, in order to have public offices there. He thought this was a favourable opportunity for building a public gallery, in the place where the king's mews stood.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, he was happy to find the House so ready to coincide in the proposition for erecting a national gallery. He knew not in what hands the national pictures could be placed, with greater propriety, than in the hands of those to whom they were at present intrusted. Every body at all conversant with the subject admitted, that they were the very best persons to whom the custody of so great a charge could be given. From the manner in which they had heretofore discharged their duty, the fullest confidence should, he conceived, be placed in them. As to the particular opportunity of selecting a plan on which it might be proper to raise a national gallery, to which allusion had been made, he should say a very few words. He apprehended, that if the hon. gentleman knew the localities of that spot, he would not deem the object he had in view so easy of attainment. The king's portion of that ground was by no means so large as the hon. gentleman imagined; and, if they wished in that quarter to have a good entrance into one of the most populous parts of London, such an entrance was entirely incompatible with the hon. gentleman's plan. If the hon. gentleman took into the account, the large space occupied by the Golden Cross and the houses between St. Martin's-lane and the mews, there was undoubtedly, considerable room for the exercise of taste and ingenuity; but it must be recollected, that this ground did not belong to the Crown. Now, as to the royal academy, no man who had once seen the exhibition at Somerset-house could doubt that, of all the places in which works of art could be displayed, this was the very worst. The archway was not large enough to admit more than one carriage. The only room in which sculpture could be exhibited must, of necessity, be on the ground floor, owing to the weight of those productions. In Somerset-house the room appropriated for this purpose was so paltry a hole, that all the beauty of the works was lost; and he could not but wonder, that any man of eminence would suffer his productions to be thrust into such an unworthy place. The other rooms were equally bad. The largest was at the very top of the building; and, so long was the ascent to it, that no gouty gentleman or corpulent lady (and such persons had as good right to see the exhibition as those who were more active) could ever hope to attain the difficult height. He should be glad to see some more convenient place provided for the royal academy; and, in that case, the royal society, who were much in want of such accommodation, could have the entire possession of Somerset-house.

Mr. Hobhouse

said, he was glad to hear, that it was intended to throw open the area in front of the king's-mews at Charing-cross. He hoped to hear also, that it was the intention of government to remove the barracks which now stood there, and which were felt by the persons living in that neighbourhood to be a serious inconvenience. Numerous representations had been made to him by his constituents, who were locally interested. They complained, that they were deprived of a right of way, which they had enjoyed from time immemorial, and of their right to the continuance of which they were so well satisfied, that they had determined to try to establish it against the Crown, if it should be longer withheld from them. He had no doubt, however, that these persons would willingly see the building which at present occupied the ground, and which was very handsome and well adapted for such a purpose, converted into a lodging for the productions of the arts. This would at once be beneficial to the country, and remove an object which was extremely disagreeable to them, because it was unnecessary and unconstitutional. It could not be said that there existed the slightest pretence for a barrack of such an extent in such a place.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, that the barrack was still to continue in the place where it was at present established. There was, however, no intention to close the area in front of the building, or to withhold from the public the passage of which the hon. gentleman spoke. He thought the hon. gentleman was a little mistaken, when he characterized the building in the mews, as a very handsome one. It was built from a design by Kent, and and was well enough adapted for the purpose for which it was erected. It was I originally intended for stables; and the facade was sufficiently handsome for a building of that nature. It was, however, in no respect fit for a gallery for works of art. Its construction was altogether so unsuitable to such a purpose, that he felt compelled to say, that of all the projects he had heard of, that of the hon. gentleman seemed to him the most singular. With respect to the objections of the hon. gentleman's constituents against the barracks, he had only to observe, that, for many years past, troops had been stationed in that part of the town; and he knew of no spot more convenient for their reception.

Mr. Croker

begged to call the attention of the House to the way in which the royal society was at present lodged in Somerset-House; a way which was unworthy, and even disgraceful. They possessed a fine library; but; for want of room, many parts of it were put away in cases and boxes; which not only rendered the access to them difficult, if not impos- sible, but seriously injured the books. He hoped that the hint which had been thrown out that evening would be shortly carried into effect, and that they would be put into possession of the apartments at Somerset-house, now occupied by the royal academy.