HC Deb 27 June 1845 vol 81 cc1328-34
Mr. Wyse

, pursuant to notice, rose to move That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, that She will be graciously pleased to issue a Commission for the purpose of considering the best means for establishing and maintaining a Museum of National Antiquities in conjunction with a Commission for the conservation of National Monuments. He did not complain either of the application or results of the expenditure dedicated to the purchase of Grecian or Roman works of art; what he wanted was, the foundation and maintenance of a gallery for the preservation of those monuments and specimens, either of skill or feeling, which characterized the arts and history of this country. It was only by a juxtaposition of the monuments of art connected with the different epochs, from the earliest to the latest, that they could either duly estimate the past or produce for the future. It was a cardinal mistake to call on artists to produce historical works, without the means of cultivating their powers, and ascertaining the spirit of the age they had to represent. These means ought to be afforded in a liberal and ample manner, worthy of so great a nation. Hitherto our artists had but small means; although their enthusiasm had been great, their education had been limited. Much labour had, therefore, been misapplied, and a large expenditure of time and money forced upon them; and thus not only individuals but the nation had been deprived of opportunities of excellence which a little previous arrangement might have secured. There was no place provided for the reception of British antiquities. Throughout the country a gradual dilapidation of public monuments was going on. In their architecture alone many of the finest old buildings were injured by neglect or injudicious repairs; many specimens of their best artists no longer existed; and, where they had been repaired, they had too often witnessed the destructive results of the "beautifying" of churchwardens and others who had no knowledge or feeling of art, and whose labours exhibited a spirit of Vandalism existing in the midst of a Christian and civilized community. He mentioned the neglect with which many specimens of old church architecture had been treated, among them St. Saviour's, Southwark, and the Cathedral of Durham; and in Ireland, Glendalough and Cashel. He quoted an extract from the Essay of Mr. Petrie, on the Round Towers of Ireland, in which that gentleman states, that he was induced to undertake his researches solely from an ardent desire to rescue the antiquities of his native country from unmerited oblivion; and from a hope that, by making them generally known, some stop might be put to the wanton destruction of those remains, which threatened to lead to their total annihilation. The same efforts should be made to preserve the ecclesiastical and historical monuments of the kingdom; and he was sure there was no one who would not co-operate with the Government for the purpose, if the Government was disposed to assist them. He adverted to the destruction that fell on the monuments and antiquities of France during the tempest of the Revolution; but the nation had at last become conscious of the misfortune. Like ourselves, the people could complain of seeing their old buildings dilapidated, or injudiciously repaired. Many of the monuments of the country were disappearing from the soil, and remains of great value, in the precious metals or in painted glass, were being transferred to the stranger. In a memoir of the Committee of Arts and Monuments, it was stated that the cathedral of Notre Dame, at Paris, was sadly shattered; that in very recent times some of its beautiful imagery and carvings had been broken or taken away; even the ancient inscription which recorded the date of its erection was almost effaced; and that it was made the place where the children of the neighbourhood assembled to amuse themselves, to the great injury of the fabric. To remedy these evils a provisionary school was instituted for the purpose of awakening attention to the subject of ancient art; the plan became more developed, and, to the honour of France, it was not long before the Government exerted themselves in the matter. The present Minister of that country took up the question zeal- ously, and the Committee of Historical Monuments and Arts was appointed. The church of St. Martin des Champs, one of the oldest in Paris, was selected as a repository for monuments and specimens of ancient art. In consequence of the exertions of this Committee, a new spirit had been aroused in France for the illustration of every period of the progress of Christianity both in that country and throughout Europe; and there was a general desire among the people to give the fullest effect to the intentions of the Government. He hoped that not only would the historical remains of France be preserved from further injury by this Committee, but that all Europe would be benefited by the liberality with which their museum was thrown open to every class of strangers. These exertions were not confined to France alone; similar efforts were making in Belgium and Germany. He reminded the House that for the decoration of the New Houses of Parliament they were going to resort to Christian art, dealing with the poetry and history, not of the pagans, but of a Christian people. Was he not justified, then, in calling on them to imitate the example of France, and to found a Museum of National Art, combined with a Commission for preventing the further decay and destruction of national monuments? He was confident the public would assist them, nay, that public liberality would outstrip their own. He knew more than one gentleman who would willingly present their collections to the public, if the Government would make them accessible, by providing a place in which they might be deposited. These collections were of great value, as they were not acquired at auctions, but by a long life of research and labour. Such were the collections of Mr. Britton, and those in the studios of many other artists and antiquaries. He believed that in founding such a museum, they would be supported by a general feeling out of doors that it would not be a lavish expenditure of public money, but one in harmony with their past and present efforts; one they were called on to make by the present position of the arts in this country; one to which they were invited by the general voice of Europe. The hon. Gentleman then moved an Address to Her Majesty to appoint a Commission to inquire into the best means of preserving the national monuments and antiquities.

Mr. Bernal

said, the inquiry called for by the hon. Member was absolutely necessary. There was, unfortunately, too great an apathy in this country, with regard to such subjects as these, because they had not the interest of personality and strong political feeling. If the state of the Treasury did not allow the right hon. Baronet to give the public money for the promotion of these objects, a public subscription ought to be opened for the purpose. We were the only country in the world which left these matters to private enterprise and taste. At the Louvre there was a large collection of middle-age relies; but we had no such public collection. He thought that the Motion of his hon. Friend was somewhat too confined—that it ought to extend to antiquities generally, which were analogous to and coeval with the antiquities of this country—for instance, those which were to be found in Brittany. There ought to be an institution where the student could see the dresses, weapons, costumes, and antiquities of past ages. It was true that there was the Geological Museum, but it was confined in its objects. And at the British Museum there were vast collections of most interesting objects, which, however, either from want of room, or want of good will on the part of the conductors of the institution, were not properly accessible. He was satisfied that if a national museum were once established, private individuals would at once contribute to it. Such an institution would have the best effect on the manners and morals of the people.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

(who was most indistinctly heard), said that the hon. Gentlemen who had brought forward and seconded this Motion, did not appear to have taken into consideration that the works of foreign countries were under the influence of the Crown or the Government, whereas a great deal had been left in England to the exertions of private individuals, or companies of persons associated together for the promotion of art. It was quite true that our national galleries and public collections would not compare with many foreign galleries; but, at the same time, it should not be forgotten that there were very valuable collections in the possession of many members of the nobility and gentry of this couuntry; and he was persuaded that, could it ever happen that, by any extraordinary circumstances, those works should be accumulated into one gallery, it would be found that England actually possessed a larger quantity of beautiful works of art than any single country in Europe. He might state, too, in respect to the owners of these works, that they were remarkable for their great liberality as regarded the arts of this country, and that their conduct gave to our native artists advantages equal to, if not greater, than those they might derive from the accumulation of these works into one spot. With respect to the architecture of this country, the hon. Gentleman would admit, he thought, with him, that there had been, in recent times, a very remarkable amendment in that department of art. With respect to the appointment of a Commission, however, for the purposes to which the hon. Gentleman had referred, what he (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) apprehended to be the evil of similar Commissions was this, that they got into the hands of individuals who, having themselves peculiar tastes of their own on the subject of art, and being succeeded again by others, perhaps, whose tastes differed from theirs, produced this result—should bad taste prevail—that bad taste was perpetuated by such Commissions. He was rather disposed, therefore, to leave subjects of this sort to the general improving taste of the people, which necessarily operated upon the minds of individuals who had the means of applying themselves to such subjects. Commissions, in his opinion, could do very little good in reference to the points of which the hon. Gentleman complained. He would not, however, enter at length into this subject on that occasion. It involved a great question of expenditure, if carried to the extent which those who were anxious for its promotion desired to see it carried; but this he felt he might say, that there never had been, on the part of the Government of this country, any niggardly disposition which restrained them from the purchase of works of art which were for sale, and the possession of which, by the nation, might be of service to the advancement and encouragement of native art. The right hon. Gentleman concluded by stating that he was not prepared to accede to the proposition before the House.

Mr. Borthwick

thought it extremely desirable that increased care should be bestowed upon the preservation of the religious and ecclesiastical monuments of this country, even to the comparative neglect of those of pagan and profane antiquity. The state of our ecclesiastical architecture was such as to call for much greater attention, though greater expense should thus be incurred than had hitherto been devoted to it. The hon. Gentleman adverted at some length to the exaction of fees from persons visiting cathedral structures, and strongly expressed his disapproval of the practice.

Mr. Ewart

said, it was a mistake to suppose that the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Wyse) wished to have existing monuments dispoiled; he only desired to have them concentrated in one establishment, instead of mouldering in various public edifices. He entirely concurred in the view which had just been taken in reference to cathedrals. Forming, as cathedrals did, part of the history and religion of the country, it was the duty of the Government to do all in its power to secure their being open to the public without any charge whatever.

Mr. Wyse

having replied,

Motion negatived.