HC Deb 08 March 1853 vol 124 cc1307-18

said, he rose pursuant to notice to move for a Select Committee to inquire into the management of the National Gallery. It might be in the recollection of many hon. Members that at an early part of the Session his hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Mr. Charteris) had given notice of a Motion similar to this; but his hon. Friend was afterwards appointed to an office in the Administration, the duties of which precluded him from devoting to the subject so much attention as he could desire, and for which his qualifications so well fitted him. Under these circumstances, his hon. Friend had requested him (Colonel Mure) to undertake the task, which he himself had been obliged to forego. After this statement he should content himself with one or two brief remarks. The House would recollect that no longer ago than 1850 a Committee of that House was engaged in a very similar course of investigation, and produced a Report founded on a valuable body of evidence. That Committee had been suggested, he believed, by the excitement that then prevailed in the public mind in consequence of the injuries that were alleged to have been committed on several fine works in the National Gallery by a rash and unskilful process of cleaning. The inquiry, however, took a wider range; for, as it proceeded, it was found impossible to separate the mere technical question from that of the general management of the National Collection. His hon. Friend's attention had been directed to the subject from the reappearance in the Gallery of several other pictures after a like operation; and, similar as might be the objects of the former and of the Committee he was now moving for, and short as might be the interval between them, there were various circumstances which tended to justify or demand a renewal of the inquiry at the pre-present season. In the first place there could be no doubt that a very great advance had taken place both in the state of public opinion and in the spirit of public discussion and speculation relative to art institutions since the year 1850. This improvement, he believed, was, to a certain extent, owing to the Great Exhibition, which had given a stimulus to every branch of art in the country; but, in the next place, although the Committee of 1850 had gone carefully into the question of cleaning, they did not appear to have altogether exhausted the subject, and in that remark he thought he was borne out by a passage in their Report, in which they said— With regard to the disputed question of cleaning and varnishing, the Committee do not wish to express any opinion, but they refer to the evidence produced before them. It appeared to him to be very desirable, in the present instance, that some distinct expression of opinion upon this particular point should emanate from the House of Commons, in order to tranquillise the public mind, and assure them that the Legislature was not indifferent to a subject in which it rejoiced to see the public take so warm and anxious an interest. There were various other topics of considerable interest embodied in the form of the present Motion, which it might be expected he should advert to, were it the object to raise any discussion upon the subject of the fine arts in general; but that was not his object. What he had in view was simply to obtain a Committee of the House on a subject of considerable extent and interest which the present state of the national and public opinion appeared to him to render, at that moment, peculiarly ripe for Parliamentary inquiry.


seconded the Motion, and said he rejoiced that his hon. and gallant Friend had not limited it to a mere technical question as to the cleaning of the pictures in the National Gallery. His hon. and gallant Friend had wisely extended the Motion into the general question of establishing a real National Gallery—a gallery not only of painting but of sculpture—of antiquities, and other objects indispensable for the cultivation of fine art, the want of which had hitherto been almost a disgrace to the country. He (Mr. Ewart) should confine his observations to the management of the National Gallery and to its composition. The management of the gallery fluctuated in a most extraordinary manner between the trustees upon the one hand, and the Treasury upon the other. At one time the trustees had the government of it, and at another the Treasury. Sometimes one body gave orders, and sometimes the other; till at last it was difficult to say where the actual authority and responsibility were lodged. Such a system was exceedingly unsatisfactory, and it was certain some other must be adopted. There must be a system such as that under which the Royal Gallery at Berlin was conducted, one of whose professors was examined before the Committee of 1850. When the present National Gallery in Trafalgar Square was erected, he (Mr. Ewart) had, as Chairman of a Committee, asked the architect whether he had made provision for a gallery of sculpture? The answer was, "No; Ministers did not give me to understand that a gallery of sculpture was to be combined with a gallery of pictures." The gallery contained no antiquities, no specimens of mediaeval art, nothing that resembled the general and universal specimens which prevailed in the collections of other countries. Was there anything in the Gallery from which the artist could become acquainted with the beautiful drawings which contained the first ideas of the great works of the great masters? No; and here was a most lamentable deficiency. But if you went into the Louvre you had free access to these, the prima stamina of the great works of the greatest masters. Certainly we had a few of these works; but they were—not buried certainly, but—concealed in the British Museum. It was of the greatest importance to the artists of this country that they should have the means of tracing the first conceptions of the great masters; in the Louvre there was an establishment, named the Chalcographie formed by the Government, where for two, three, or four francs you could purchase an exact tracing of the first drawings of the most eminent painters. Why should not artists have the same facility in this country? We had, however, neglected our opportunities of obtaining such first drawings. He need only remind the House of the dispersion of the collection made by the late Sir Thomas Lawrence, at the cost not only of his time but of his fortune, which was offered to the country in 1836, and which contained some of the first drawings of Raphael, Michael Angelo, Correggio, and many more. Part of this collection had gone to Russia, part to Holland, and only a certain portion yet remained in this country, owing to the patriotic efforts of the present Lord Eldon, and was now in Oxford, in the Taylor Museum, perfectly accessible and admirably arranged. It might be said that it would be difficult now to make such a National Gallery as the one suggested—that we were beginning too late. But he contended that what had been done for the National Gallery at Berlin by Mr. Solly, an Englishman, acting under the guidance of the King of Prussia, in the course of a very few years, showed that it was not impossible to form such a collection, and that we were not too late. He hailed the plan which had been shadowed out by the late Chancellor of the Exchequer—a plan by which the School of Design, the scientific societies, and the National Gallery, would all be collected under one roof, so that all which combined to form the artist or the artist manufacturer might be contemplated from the same point of view. Like the question of the Great Exhibition itself, this had, it was true, been received at first with a degree of coldness by the public; but he had no doubt that, like the Great Exhibition, it would hereafter excite similar enthusiasm. He knew there were those who maintained that the people of this country were not susceptible of education in the arts—that they were too practical; that commerce or politics absorbed their energies, and that they never could be artists. He denied so narrow and un-philosophical an assertion. He would answer in the words of Virgil: Non obtusa adeo gestamur pectora Poeni, Nee tarn aversus equos Tyria Sol junaet ab urbe. No! we were not born so far from the sun, but that we could feel the influence at least of his mitigated rays. He rejoiced that his hon. and gallant Friend had taken up the subject- If he pursued it in the same manner as he had begun it, he had no doubt it would be productive of credit to himself and advantage to the country. Motion made, and Question proposed— That a Select Committee be appointed, to inquire into the management of the National Gallery; also to consider in what mode the collective monuments of Antiquity and Fine Art, possessed by the Nation, may be most securely preserved, judiciously augmented, and(advantageously exhibited to the public.


said, he did not object to the appointment of the Committee; on the contrary, he felt indebted to his hon. and gallant Friend for having undertaken a task which he would find would prove to be no slight one. For himself he had a most anxious desire that this Committee should be the last. There had been, during the last fifteen years, Committee after Committee, and Commission after Commission, and there was now a strong wish, out of doors at all events, that some decision should at length be come to. He hoped that the Members of the Committee would not enter upon the inquiry as partisans, and that the Government would be prepared to lay some satisfactory information before the House, in order that they might know how they stood, because the Reports of the different Committees and Commissions had been most contradictory. For his own part, he thought that a Committee of that House was little calculated to form a proper opinion upon the subject, and he very much rejoiced in the wise step taken by the noble Lord the Member for London (Lord John Russell), when he appointed a Commission to inquire into it, in putting upon that Commission, besides three most distinguished men, a professor of painting and the most eminent chemist of the day. Not to go back further than 1850, a Committee was formed to inquire into the same subjects as those now proposed to be gone into. No sooner had that Committee separated than a Commission was appointed, which recommended one of two sites for a Gallery, the one to which they gave their preference being in Bayswater-road. The House never decided upon the point, and a new Commission was issued, which had no sooner reported than it was thrown over by a subsequent decision, 150,000l. being granted by Government upon the condition that 150,000l. from the Great Exhibition fund should be added to it. That 300,000l., it seemed, was to be disposed of without a vote of the House; and it had turned out that the scientific societies which it was proposed to accommodate under the same roof had refused the offer. He also hoped that the House would require some further information before it consented to remove the National Gallery; and once more he trusted that the Committee which had now been moved for would be the last.


said, there was a general impression out of doors that several pictures in the National Gallery had been spoiled in a process of what was called cleaning, and he wished that the Government, considering that these pictures were national property, would take steps to satisfy the public on that subject. The hon. Member for Haddingtonshire (Mr. Charteris) had some time since put a Motion to that effect upon the Votes; and he had hoped that the hon. Member would have now carried a Government sanction to that inquiry. With regard to the Motion now before them, he agreed in the opinion that all these collections of pictures and sculpture should be assembled under one roof; but he differed from the views advocated by the author of a pamphlet lately published, that the works of art now in the British Museum should be taken out of the hands of the trustees and vested in the control of the keeper of the national pictures. He believed that they had now arrived at a crisis in the history of art in this country. There were two ways in which the encouragement of art would operate. The first was what he might call the natural way, where art, left to the encouragement afforded by private individuals, and promoted by the ardour of its professors, would rise from year to year by successive degrees of excellence. The other was the continental system, where there was a national education of art, and where there was protection afforded to artists in contradistinction to members of other professions. He hoped that before anything was decided, the comparative advantages of these two systems would be fully investigated. He wished also to ask one other question. Was the second Report of the Commissioners of the Great Exhibition to be included in the range of inquiry to be embraced by the Committee for which the hon. and gallant Member for Renfrewshire had moved, or was it not? He understood that it was not to be included, and he certainly thought it ought not. As to the other question—the removal of the pictures in the National Gallery to Kensington—that was a fair subject for inquiry, and he would not give any opinion upon it now; but he hoped, considering that there were now more than 2,000,000 of a population in the metropolis to whom the present site was extremely convenient, that no change would be decided upon without some expression of the popular opinion. He urged this with the more confidence, because the distinguished architect of the House where they sat, Sir Charles Barry, had given it as his opinion, that Trafalgar-square was most admirably suited for architectural purposes; that it was the finest site possessed by almost any city in Europe. He hoped, therefore, that that site, which might be considered the eye of London, would not be lightly abandoned; and having said this, he had only to express his hope that the Committee which was now moved for would prove useful, and serve many important purposes.


said, it struck him, as it seemed to have done other hon. Members, that the Motion of the hon. Member for Renfrewshire (Col. Mure) did not sufficiently define what were to be the particular subjects of the proposed inquiry; for if the Committee went into a rambling inquiry as to the nature of National Galleries and Museums of all sorts and kinds, he did not see how their labours could lead to any useful results. The hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Ewart) appeared to think that the inquiry ought to include everything on the face of the earth that had any relation whatever to arts or manufactures. And the scope of the Motion was, in fact, not only for inquiry into the nature of a National Gallery, but into all those subjects for which he thought the British Museum had been exclusively set apart. The Committee would have to inquire concerning the custody of our national pictures, the preservation of antiquities, the nature of schools of art, and how persons might be better instructed in the fine arts hereafter. [Mr. EWART: No!] Why, it was quite clear that it would take in every one of these questions. In his (Sir G. Strickland's) opinion, the Committee would be much more useful if it confined its inquiries to the National Gallery, and the preservation of the fine paintings which it contained, and did not ramble over all those other matters. He concurred with the hon. and gallant Member (Col. Mure) that there were serious reasons for the appointment of a Committee; because his own impression was that many of the finest pictures in the National Gallery had been totally and entirely destroyed by the process of "cleaning." Indeed, some of the pictures which years ago he most admired, he could only look upon now with disgust and shame.


Sir, I cannot say that I agree with my hon. Friend who has just spoken. I think, with regard to the hon. and gallant Member who has made the Motion, and who is so eminently qualified to develop its objects, that in the first place we may well confide the task of inquiry to his hands; and next, I think that he has judiciously chosen the terms of his Motion. Because, though there is no doubt that the Committee will think it right to inquire into the manner in which the pictures of the National Gallery are preserved, whether the mode of cleaning that has been adopted is, as some say, calculated to destroy them, or, as others say, is well adapted for the purposes of preservation; I think that there is another and larger question that is well worthy of inquiry, and on which I hope we shall obtain the opinions of persons competent to give a judgment. I confess I think it is of great importance to consider whether the pictures we possess in other collections might not be so arranged as to become more worthy of the name of a National Gallery than that which we at present have. At present the National Gallery was rather such a collection as a rich individual might make, consisting of beautiful works of art, rather than a collection such as a nation ought to possess, because it is evident that there are many pictures and drawings belonging to the first beginnings of art, which a mere private collector might not wish to have in his house, choosing rather to employ his money in buying beautiful pictures, but which might yet be of the greatest value to the nation and to the artist, as illustrating the history and early progress of the fine arts. Whether it may be possible, considering the various trusts under which works of art are placed in this country, many of them being in the custody of the trustees of the British Museum—whether it is possible to form such a collection under one roof, I shall not at present venture to give an opinion. This is one of the important subjects which the Committee, will have to investigate. There may be difficulties which will occur to the Committee when they consider this matter; but there is one object which I have more than once stated in this House as worth striving for, an object which ought not to be attended with much difficulty—I mean the obtaining of a collection of works of the early Italian masters, many of which are indeed very beautiful in themselves, but which have a further value, as showing the progress which led afterwards to the beautiful creations of Rafaelle and Da Vinci. This ought not, I think, to be attended with much difficulty, or to require any great expenditure of money. I can only say, in conclusion that I hope the hon. and gallant Gentleman who has undertaken this task will not desist from it. It will, no doubt, be attended with great labour, but I anticipate useful results from it, and I shall give my cordial support to the Motion.


said, he objected to the decision which appeared to have been come to, that the National Gallery and the various scientific bodies should be located together in the new building at Kensington. The scientific societies strongly objected to this arrangement. The secretary of the Geographical Society said that the communications of the society with the Government would be put an end to if their rooms were to be removed to Kensington. Even with regard to the removal of the pictures, there did not appear to be sufficient evidence in favour of the measure. The evidence of Mr. Uwins was much relied on; but that gentleman had objected to the site of the Great Exhibition as about the worst in Hyde Park. Now, the site for the new gallery was still worse than that, as it was in a still lower situation. Dr. Faraday stated that the injury to the pictures from the smoke of Belgravia would be as bad as the injury from the smoke in Trafalgar-square. Sir Charles Eastlake said that if the gallery were removed from its present site it would be necessary to have it opened on Sundays. Whether the Exhibition Commissioners had come to that conclusion or not, he did not know. He had no doubt, however, that Mr. Uwina' prophecy would, in one respect, be fulfilled—there would be far less dust at Kensington than at Trafalgar-square, because there would be far fewer people attending. To his mind, however, the great charm of the existing gallery was the great numbers of people that were at all times to be found there. With regard to having pictures and sculpture brought together, he admitted that, considered simply in itself, that would be an advantage; but it was possible that that advantage might be bought at too great a cost, and as it was clearly impossible that they could remove the paintings to the British Museum, it followed that they could only move the sculptures to the same site with the pictures, thus rendering useless the buildings in the British Museum, which had already cost the nation more than 1,000,000l. He should be very glad if the Committee would examine these questions thoroughly before the decision was come to.


said, he was doubtful whether the inquiry did not embrace too many subjects. He hoped they would go thoroughly into the question of cleaning the pictures. Years ago he had moved for a copy of the Minutes relating to this subject; and the late Sir Robert Peel stated to him then that the cleaning was not done by the orders of the board, but of a single individual. Sir Robert Peel fully concurred in his Motion, and the Minutes were produced and laid on the table of the House. So lately as December last he had moved for the names of the trustees of the National Gallery, and the orders under which they acted, for he could not believe that the Government would authorise such large sums of money to be spent without having some instructions or plan under which it was expended. But from the Returns which were produced, it did not appear that any instructions had been issued by the Treasury to the trustees for their guidance. Then, in the next place, who were these trustees? Why they were just an omnium gatherum of great men who never attended, and could not be expected to attend. There was the First Lord of the Treasury. The noble Lord below him, who had for a long time been First Lord of the Treasury, knew that he had scarcely time to get through his own business. Then there was the Chancellor of the Exchequer: had he any time? As far as he (Mr. Hume) understood, very little. Then there was Lord Ashburton, Lord Overstone, and, after some other names, there was Mr. Samuel Rogers. There was a day when he might have been of great use; but, like him (Mr. Hume), he was now rather the worst for wear. Last of all came Sir Charles Eastlake. He was the man. If all reports were true, he did everything and directed everything. He was the alpha and omega of the whole system. Was it a wonder that things went on as they did with such a strange mixture of trustees? He noticed in the Minutes mention of a number of pictures by good masters offered to the Gallery, and rejected by the trustees. He should like to know why they had been rejected. If it was on account of want of room, the room should have been supplied. He could tell the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Ewart) that there was in this country capital enough to create a school for the due encouragement of the Fine Arts; but from the peddling way in which the Government went to work, nothing worthy of the name was done. He did not agree with the plan for placing the various works of art under one roof. He would have as many museums and galleries as possible opened in various quarters, where the population at large could have convenient access to them. For instance, he would have the collection retained at Hampton Court, and he thought that Kensington Palace might also be thrown open to the public. One half of that palace was occupied by the late Secretary for the Admiralty Mr. Croker. He did not know what right he had there. He would much rather purchase the poor-house adjoining the National Gallery, and form a square sufficiently largo to admit of ample accommodation. This he believed was the one thing on which he and Sir Charles Barry were agreed. He did hope the day would come when the people of England would possess greater taste for the Fine Arts, and better opportunities of forming that taste, than in any part of the Continent. It would require time, he knew, and the sooner they began the better. If they erected a proper building, and placed it in good order, he believed the public Treasury-need not he put to a farthing expense, for that an ample collection of the finest works would soon be contributed from gentlemen willing to assist so desirable an object.


said, he did not wish to enter on the general subject mere fully than had already been done by his noble Friend (Lord J. Russell). Between those Gentlemen who thought the hon. and gallant Member (Colonel Mure) had included too much in his Motion, and those Gentlemen who thought he had included too little, there was room for the comfortable belief that he had framed his Motion very judiciously; and he (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) was very glad to see the matter in his hon. and gallant Friend's hands. He wished, however, to make a remark on two subjects. First, the removal of the National Gallery to Kensington. It seemed to be supposed by his hon. Friend (Mr. Hume), and likewise by other hon. Gentlemen, that the Government had absolutely decided on that removal, and were pledged to its taking effect. As far as he was informed, no such decision had been arrived at. Nothing had been done—which, in the event of an expression of public feeling on the question, and he entirely agreed with those who thought this a matter in which the public were deeply interested, and ought to be heard—nothing had been said or done, which in the event of such an expression, or in the event of its being found on the whole wiser that the removal should not take place, to prevent the Government consulting the wishes of the public so expressed. He wished also to say a word about the cleaning of the pictures, because strong opinions had been expressed by several hon. Members on that subject. The gentleman who had been officially employed in that matter might have been right, or he might have been wrong, hut what he had done was under the authority of a very high character, and he was quite sure the House could have no wish to prejudge the question. The public were very much obliged to those who called their attention to anything which affected the custody of these very precious treasures. At the same time it ought to be known that whatever had been done had not been done hastily or carelessly. Whatever had been done had been done by Mr. Seguier, a gentleman of great experience and great ability, with the greatest care, and under the close and constant superintendence of Mr. Uwins, and Mr. Seguier stated in a letter—"I assure you that during the extensive practice I have had I do not recollect any pictures improved more to my satisfaction." A strong opinion had been expressed in an opposite sense. He did not ask the House to subscribe to the opinion of Mr. Seguier, but he thought it more fair, as the matter was about to undergo close and intelligent examination before the Committee, to leave it at present in their hands until they had the means of coming to a final decision, which their investigation would afford.


said, that he regarded with some alarm the introduction of a foreign system, and on a previous occasion he had expressed his sentiments on the subject; but as the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer had stated that the Government were not pledged to the removal of the National Gallery, he should not trespass upon them with any remarks. They ought never to forget that great school which already existed for the development of those branches of manufacturing industry and ingenuity, upon which the prosperity of the country so mainly depended.

Motion agreed to.